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The Windschuttle treatment: a lesson in how not to read a text

By Andrew Bonnell - posted Wednesday, 30 March 2005

On March 16, 2005, Keith Windschuttle published a polemical essay in The Australian entitled “Tutorials in terrorism”. Most of the article was taken up with a denunciation of the University of Sydney for allegedly inviting Antonio Negri, co-author of the book Empire and a supposed former Italian Red Brigades member, to speak at a conference. Sydney University has since denied inviting Negri, who is apparently forbidden to leave Italy.

Windschuttle then cited a recent collection of essays, Genocide and Settler Society, edited by Dirk Moses of Sydney University, for examples of academics’ uncritical treatment of Ward Churchill, the controversial, US Native American activist and professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “as a scholarly authority on the Aborigines”. I am not concerned here with the question of Churchill’s scholarly credentials on Indigenous history - I will leave that to writers better informed than I about Native American history. My concern is with how Windschuttle reads a work, and what impression of it he conveys to his readers.

Once again, Keith Windschuttle presents us with a lesson in how not to read a text. The examples of misreading identified here might seem minor in themselves, but the effect, in every instance, is that Windschuttle provides a misleading picture of the work under discussion. This is pertinent because in Windschuttle’s voluminous book, the Fabrication of Aboriginal History, the “fabrications” he documents consist of a handful of minor errors in footnotes. I took the trouble of checking Windschuttle’s references on this occasion.


In the first instance, Windschuttle refers to Dirk Moses’ chapter on “Genocide and Settler Society in Australia” and asserts that the author takes Ward Churchill’s work more seriously than that of the distinguished political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Windschuttle writes, “To Moses, she is no match for Churchill”.

If one reads what Moses has actually written, one finds he begins his discussion of the extent to which the massacres of Indigenous people in Australia can be understood within current concepts of the term "genocide" by positing two poles of the argument. One, he writes, “[in] its extreme incarnation ... condemns European imperialism as a murderous conspiracy against non-Europeans”. Moses cites Churchill as typical of this “extreme”. Note that Windschuttle does not tell his readers that Moses characterises Churchill’s view as belonging to an “extreme” pole of the debate.

Moses then cites Arendt as one example of a “rival view” that sees British imperialism as relatively benign. Windschuttle is right to point out that there is more to Hannah Arendt than this. Her 1951 work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, was far more challenging and thought-provoking than any of the subsequent contributions to “totalitarianism theory”, with her suggestion that imperialism, anti-Semitism and totalitarianism were all related symptoms of the same crisis of the late 19th century liberal state in Europe. Arendt raises the possibility that the origins of totalitarianism, fascism and genocide could be found in 19th century European imperialism. Historians have perhaps not paid as much attention to this insight as they should - as the German scholar Jürgen Zimmerer suggests in his contribution to this volume.

One problem with Arendt’s hypothesis is that Britain, with the most extensive 19th century empire, did not experience a totalitarian regime. She sought to explain this by suggesting that the British Empire was somehow more benign than the rest. An alternative explanation might be that British domestic institutions were more adaptable to modern mass politics than those of many other European countries, with Britain's tradition of accepting alternation between rival political parties as legitimate, and providing some protection against extremism.

But in the chapter under discussion, Moses is concerned with the history of colonial genocide in Australia, and Arendt's work is - unfortunately - rather thin on this point. To state that pre-colonial Australia was “almost empty”, lacking a culture of its own, will no longer do, even if Arendt also acknowledges a “comparatively short” period of “cruel liquidation” (which is more than Windschuttle is usually willing to admit). Writing in 1951, from outside Australia, it is not clear where Arendt might have acquired more detailed knowledge of the matter. As far as the standard literature then available is concerned, Stephen Roberts' 1924 History of Land Settlement in Australia has nothing to say on Aborigines, and his 1935 The Squatting Age presents a highly partial and prejudiced pro-squatter view.

For the moment, the point is that Moses does not side with Churchill against Arendt, as Windschuttle suggests. Instead, Moses states that both views are one-sided and embarks on a more sophisticated analysis of a number of contemporary theories of genocide, as applied to the colonial situation. This is the conventional academic gambit of positing two drastically opposed views in order to argue a more nuanced and subtle third position. Windschuttle misrepresents this as a case of parti pris for Churchill.


In the second instance advanced by Windschuttle, he writes that Henry Reynolds “also cites Churchill as one of the academic authorities who argue that what happened in Tasmania amounted to genocide”. This is true as far as this goes, which is not very far at all. Reynolds also cites Robert Hughes, N.G. Butlin, Raphael Lemkin (who coined the term genocide), Leo Kuper, biologist Jared Diamond, long-time doyen of US colonial history, Bernard Bailyn, and British diplomatic historian D.C. Watt. Windschuttle conveys the impression that Reynolds is hopping onto Ward Churchill’s radical bandwagon. But the reference is taken out of context. Instead, the list of cited authorities demonstrates how widely held the belief is that Tasmania was a case of genocide.

Reynolds cites N.J.B. Plomley’s finding that in the 1820s most colonists were “extirpationists at heart”. He is, however, cautious on whether such an attitude prevailed among colonial officials, and stresses the difficulty in determining where the state of war in Tasmania in the 1820s and 1830s crossed the line into genocide. Again, this is too nuanced for Windschuttle. Windschuttle withholds Reynolds’ conclusion from the reader. Reynolds quotes Churchill, among several others, only to distance himself from Churchill's views. (Most of Reynolds’ references are to primary sources.)

The third instance is in the chapter by the Melbourne-based genocide scholar Paul Bartrop. Bartrop’s offence is to refer to Churchill “as a reliable source on the massacre of Native Americans in Colorado”. Bartrop does cite Churchill, but in only 2 out of 64 footnotes in his chapter. In reference to the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, Bartrop cites several works, based on primary sources, in addition to Churchill’s. He does not rely on Churchill in isolation. Instead, he compares Churchill’s account with those of a number of others - the normal historical practice.

Windschuttle does not attempt to grapple with the complex arguments about genocide in the colonial context laid out in the Moses volume. His reader is told nothing about them. The only purpose of Windschuttle’s comments is to denounce scholars for citing an author he considers untrustworthy. But in each instance, Windschuttle extracts the citation from its context in a misleading fashion. As such, Windschuttle provides an example of what Humphrey McQueen once referred to as the “police method” of reading history: searching out the incriminating quotation, whether out of context or not, and engaging in character assassination and guilt-by-association, rather than debating the intellectual arguments.

On the evidence of these examples, Windschuttle either can’t read, or is deliberately misrepresenting historians’ work to the public. Question: “Keith Windschuttle: historian or polemicist? Discuss”.

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About the Author

Dr Andrew Bonnell is a Lecturer at the School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, University of Queensland.

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