Friday, 14 December 2018

Aboriginal genocide and the distortion of history

On 27 November at 8.56am the Auschwitz Memorial Twitter account in Poland tweeted, “When we look at Auschwitz we see the end of the process. It's important to remember that the Holocaust actually did not start from gas chambers. This hatred gradually developed from words, stereotypes & prejudice through legal exclusion, dehumanisation & escalating violence.”

All of this is true, but for conservative Americans these will be hard things to listen to. There is a hard-right flank in the community there that harbours ill will toward minorities and that wants us to look away as it changes the debate to make it easier to demonise people who look different from them. Republican politicians are broadly sympathetic to such people and use rhetorical techniques to “dog whistle” in public, or in other words to call up negative emotions in certain people in order to further policy aims, without actually using words which would attract censure from people in the centre. It’s a kind of oblique hate speech, but it’s one that won’t necessarily result in a swing against them at the ballot box (of course, as we saw with the result of the Victorian election in November, it can backfire if taken too far).

Far-right culture warriors hate it when you talk about the Nazis because it exposes their real motivations. The truth is a tonic in contemporary debates because it reveals people for what they actually are. But people on the left are sometimes equally unwilling to face thee truth. On Twitter, @dearnonnatives tweeted, “Saying ‘the early settlers were illegal immigrants’ is harmful. They were not immigrants, they were colonizers. There’s a difference. Colonizers came here to take over the land and kill us. Immigrants are just trying to live a better life.”

You find this kind of view voiced by people on the left all the time with regard to the Aborigines of Australia. I had a long conversation with some people recently on Facebook about this issue and a lot of heated argument resulted because it seemed like I was playing down the loss of life on the frontier during the colonial period. But the facts of the case militate against the use of the word “genocide”. It is true that there was a determined official push to kill Aborigines in Tasmania but official policies on the mainland were not so rigid.

You only have to read history books that deal with the frontier during the colonial period. None of the reputable ones use the word “genocide” for a start. But what strikes me when reading these books is how many different stories there are. It's not one story all the time. To take one book for example, 1995's 'Waterloo Creek' by Roger Milliss, which is about the Myall Creek massacre in 1838. For one thing, some of the Wirrayaraay in the area were being employed by a local stockman on the day the killings took place. Then there was the convict, Anderson, who tried to help the unfortunate women, men and children the settlers rounded up. Then after the massacre happened there was a man in a nearby town named Foot who took the news all the way to Sydney (it happened on the Liverpool Plains) so that the authorities could learn of it. Then the governor asked a local magistrate named Day to investigate the killings. Then of course there was the trial (or, more correctly, two trials) as a result of which some white men were hanged. Other books tell similar stories.

Different states had different responses to the Aboriginal populations that lived in their territories. In Queensland they had the notorious “native police” who were used to control the indigenous tribes, and the use of euphemisms to disguise what they did (“dispersal”) was commonplace. But these measures were not used in all states at all times. Many settlers had good relations with Aboriginal people for most of the time, and employed them on their farms to mutual benefit.

But people who support a progressive agenda don’t care about truth, they just want their favourite policy to win in the contest of ideas that constitutes contemporary politics. And, as always, the most extreme viewpoint will get all the attention, which is why the people on the far-right I spoke about at the beginning of this post are so popular in the public sphere. Then there’s the pushback, so a word like “genocide” is thrown around with wild abandon by the left-wing culture warriors as they fight their opponents using all the rhetorical devices they can muster in support of their opinions. The first casualty in war, as we know, however, is the truth.

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