Roger’s Rules

Always apologize, always explain, or, Why Intellectuals like Genocide

Australia’s recent decision to apologize to the Aborigines–it was, said The New York Times, “a comprehensive and moving apology for past wrongs”–was front-page news. But why? Kevin Rudd, Australia’s new Prime Minsiter, said his country would act “to remove a great stain from the nation’s soul.” But what, precisely, had Australia done to the Aborigines? Well, everything. Australia is run by white folks now, isn’t it? And then there is the issue of attempting to improve the lot of Aborigines by encouraging assimilation. This was the so-called “Stolen Generations” controversy. The Times says “tens of thousands” of children were removed, “sometimes forcibly,” from their families and resettled. I’d like to second the historian Andrew Bolt’s challenge to produce a list of even ten names of children who were resettled by Australian authorities. It’s not that I doubt some children were removed from their families–e.g., a 13-year-old called Dolly, who was taken into the care of the State after being “found seven months pregnant and penniless, working for nothing on a station.”

But the larger question is, why is Mr. Rudd or his countrymen to blame? And what sort of expiation does he expect from his “comprehensive and moving apology”? Benjamin Disraeli is one eminent statesman credited with the advice “Never apologize, never explain.” (Sometimes emended to “Never apologize, never explain, never repeat the mistake.”) Whatever the limitations of the policy, it at least avoids the cloying, hothouse atmosphere of unremitting pseudo-contrition that oozes like a fetid gas into the crowded chambers in which liberals rub up against one another in their little orgies of self-congratulation. (“We are guilty, guilty, guilty, and therefore virtuous.”) Somehow, I cannot quite picture the stalwart John Howard, Australia’s last Prime Minister, colluding in such festivals of purgation and limitless apology.

Not, of course, that apology is ever enough. It must be accompanied by penance, i.e., the taxpayer’s–that is your–money, and gobs of it. This is the kind of sentence that The New York Times specializes in: “But for some people, Mr. Rudd’s apology will not have gone far enough because he has ruled out setting up a government fund to compensate the victims of the policies that led to the Stolen Generations.”

A few years ago, the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle published a book called The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. The burden of this excellent work (reviewed here in The New Criterion by the eminent historian Geoffrey Blainey) is to show that the received wisdom about the founding of Australia–that it involved the European genocide of the native Aboriginal population–is a myth. Europeans did kill some Aborigines–some 120 Tasmanian Aborigines, for example. But then, the natives killed a like number of Europeans. So it goes.

Mr. Windschuttle’s book is a work of meticulous scholarship that patiently sifts through the historical record to show exactly how the myth got started, how it was perpetuated, and how an entire academic industry grew up to nurture and propagate a false view of the Australian founding. You might think that a man who had discharged this service to the truth and brought his fellow Australians the good news that their country was not, as they had always been told, founded on genocide would be greeted as a hero. Fat chance. Instead, Mr. Windschuttle was greeted by howls of rage and a cataract of calumny by academics who couldn’t bear the thought that their ancestors weren’t the guilty imperialists and racists they’d always assumed they were. The reaction to The Fabrication of Aboriginal History was as predicable as it was inadvertently amusing. (See John Dawson’s rave review in Washout: On the academic response to the fabrication of Aboriginal history.)

The interesting question is Why? Why were intellectuals so hostile to Mr. Windschuttle’s book? Why were they so wedded–irrationally wedded–to the idea that their country was founded on genocide? Why, in short, did they desperately crave that story to be true? More generally, why are intellectuals–not only Australian intellectuals–constitutionally drawn to such dismal fabrications? (Scratch an American intellectual and you’ll get a similar tale about European genocide of American Indians.)

Such questions formed the theme of Theodore Dalrymple excellent meditation on The Fabrication of Aboriginal History over at the web site New English Review. Mr. Dalrymple’s essay bears the provocative title “Why Intellectuals Like Genocide.” I won’t be giving too much away if I say that the answer–a large part of it, anyway–has to do with that unwieldy and insatiably voracious thing: intellectuals’ self-regard.

The dispute was not just a matter of the interpretation of the contents of old newspapers in Hobart libraries: it went to the very heart of the intelligentsia’s self-conception as society’s conscience and natural leaders.

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.

“Why Intellectuals Like Genocide” is a classic. Read the whole thing here.