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 Windshuttle 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.
Levi’s investigation 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 judgement. Instead, she is in thrall to a vision. She conjures 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, he writes “the appropriate response of a critical intellectual is surely first of all to ask why sixty years of separating children from their families fails to conjure up disturbing images”.
Clendinnen thus 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.