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Windschuttle, history warriors and real historians

By Dirk Moses - posted Monday, 11 April 2005


Readers of this site will know that Andrew G. Bonnell, an historian at the University of Queensland, subjected a recent newspaper column (“Tutorials in Terrorism”, The Australian, March 16, 2005), by the freelance media commentator Keith Windschuttle, to withering critique.

Why was this necessary?

Windschuttle, Bonnell argued, had misled the public once again about important matters of current political and historical interest, in particular, regarding my new, edited book, Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and Stolen Indigenous Children in Australian History. In the context of the enduring “history wars”, Bonnell thought it was important to set the record straight. (Readers should be aware that Bonnell and his colleague, Martin Crotty, have written an excellent analysis of the history wars, called “An Australian ‘Historikerstreit’?” in the Australian Journal of Politics and History.)

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After all, the editorial of The Australian on March 16, 2005, based foursquare on Windschuttle’s screed, said our universities lacked a “moral compass” and accused its “publicly funded intelligentsia” of “woolly-mindedness”. It continued, “Having long ago substituted “critique” for reason, and even after everything that has happened during the past 3 ½ years, the intellectuals cannot grasp that the West and its democratic values are under attack from an insidious new fascism”. Plainly, the stakes are high - no less than the survival of western civilisation itself. And the implications are clear: we academics are apologists for or soft on “an insidious new fascism”.

Given this extraordinary and ugly accusation, it is important that readers are apprised of the salient facts. This is the aim of what I write here. We must start with Windschuttle. The first part of his invective was not directed at my book, but rather at a conference invitation of the University of Sydney to Antonio Negri. (For the necessary information that corrects Windschuttle’s contorted account of the matter, go here.) His account of my book was equally contorted, as Bonnell shows.

In his column, Windschuttle pointed out that a number of chapters in Genocide and Settler Society, including my own, refer to the scholarly work of Ward Churchill, the Native American scholar and activist who recently achieved notoriety for his article, Some People Push Back: The Justice of Roosting Chickens, after the 9-11 attacks in the US.

Churchill, who teaches at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is well-known among scholars of Native American history and genocide studies as a strident and uncompromising advocate of the Indigenous perspective and critic of the west. With characteristic rhetorical exaggeration, he adorned his otherwise standard, leftist argument that the terrorist attacks had been the predictable consequence of US foreign policy with the infelicitous phrase that many of the dead in the twin-towers had been “little Eichmanns”.

With this expression, Churchill wanted to imply that they - and the US - were not innocent victims, but also that they were engaged in a criminal enterprise (more on this below). As might be expected, this article - when it was discovered a few years after its writing - struck many Americans as an outrageous slur on the country and those who had died on 9-11. Conservative politicians and activists maintain he supports terrorism, and are now calling for Churchill’s sacking. (He replies to critics here).

Windschuttle’s ploy is obvious: he is attempting to discredit my book by asserting that it is informed by Churchill’s views about genocide in Tasmania. “Meanwhile in Australia,” he wrote, “Churchill is being presented as a scholarly authority on the Aborigines. In the newly released anthology Genocide and Settler Society, editor Dirk Moses of the University of Sydney's history department quotes Churchill's 1997 book A Little Matter of Genocide as one of his main sources on the Tasmanian Aborigines. Churchill compares the fate of the Tasmanians with that of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis.”

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Since Bonnell has demonstrated already how Windschuttle misrepresented the book, let’s examine my exchange with Windschuttle. My letter to the editor the next day stated:

Keith Windschuttle (Opinion, 16/3) wants readers to think that my book, "Genocide and Settler Society", approves of Ward Churchill's depiction of the British settlement of Tasmania as akin to the Holocaust. In fact, Churchill is cited as an “extreme incarnation” of the anti-imperial approach to writing about colonialism. One of the targets of the book is “wild analogies with Nazi genocide” like those of Churchill.

This correction forced the following admission from Windschuttle 24 hours later in The Australian: “True, Moses disagrees with Churchill that indigenous genocide was a murderous conspiracy.” Naturally, though, he must have the last word, and so he accuses me of being “deceptive” in my quoting: “Moses’s letter claims his book criticises Churchill for making wild analogies with Nazi genocide. However, the book targets that phrase not at Churchill but at journalist Phillip Knightley.” Once again, he is wrong. Here is what I wrote:

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This is an edited version of a longer article. The complete version can be found here.  We have asked Keith Windschuttle for a reply.



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About the Author

Dirk Moses teaches history at the University of Sydney. His edited book, Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation and Subaltern Resistance in World History (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books) will be published in May.

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Related Links
The Windschuttle treatment: a lesson in how not to read a text - On Line Opinion

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