One fine morning Australians woke up to find the credit rating of their country—the moral credit rating, that is—plummeting out of control. A damaging tale about “stolen children” had been invented. It was said that between 1880 and 1970, about 100,000 Aboriginal youngsters had been cruelly torn from their mothers and families and institutionalized, and that Australia had been guilty of genocide. Scholarly studies even compared this thriving liberal democracy to Hitler’s Germany.
Somehow the story didn’t sound right. Or not to ordinary people. It sounded more like university men playing fast and loose with language, inflating the meaning of the words “culture” and “genocide” for their own dubious purposes, while liberally employing suppressio veri and suggestio falsi to deal with awkward facts along the way.
And that was indeed the case. In today’s art galleries and universities, outrageousness pays. Back in 1980, a historian named Peter Read had written something attacking the removal of part-Aboriginal children from risky homes to give them a better life. He claimed that instead of benefiting from this removal, they had all suffered grievous loss. He called his pamphlet “The Lost Generations.” But that wasn’t dramatic enough, so his wife suggested “The Stolen Generations” instead. This small but momentous change insinuated that all such removals were forcible, resisted, and illegal, and that Australia’s indigenous communities had been the unacknowledged victims of malign “genocidal” theft. That certainly got attention—enough to produce a government enquiry in 1997 and a national apology by the prime minister in 2008.
First, let us concede at the outset that the frontier between civilization and tribal society is a miserable place. Terrible things have happened there, and in some countries they still do. But was the removal of young part-Aboriginals from the misery of outback camps one of those terrible things? Keith Windschuttle certainly didn’t think so, yet the charges would not be easy to refute. The alleged evils happened over a vast continent during a long period when there were gradual changes in thinking, law, and personnel, with variations between the different states. Only someone of remarkable determination with advanced research skills would attempt to sift the thousands of documents involved. It is, however, the sort of challenge this author thrives on, and the results are now available in the third volume of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, entitled The Stolen Generations 1881–2008.
The myth of the Stolen Generations (aka Stolen Children) has several elements. The historian who invented it claimed that the separation of child and parent was intended to produce permanent and final institutionalization. Windschuttle found that was not the case. Contacts with parents were generally encouraged, and in New South Wales, during the period 1907–1932, more than half returned to their families. It was originally claimed that the state sought to take the youngest children possible since the main purpose was to destroy their “Aboriginality.” Untrue again. Most were teenagers and the idea was to find useful employment for young people who would otherwise waste their lives. Were the missionaries and other custodians “monsters” and “psychopaths”? No. Just mortal men and women with the usual range of human frailties. As for the figure of 100,000, Windschuttle’s concluding judgment is that in the ninety-year period, for the whole continent, the total number of removals was about 8,250.
The success of Read’s catchy title encouraged the author to make more sensational claims, one of them being that since the growth of the Aboriginal population was in some places regarded with alarm, “their extinction … would have to be arranged.” Leftist mischief-makers happily amplified the insinuation. Yet the simple truth, and it cannot be repeated too often, is that throughout the nation’s history Australia’s race relations legislation has had one overriding goal—the preservation of the nation’s full-blood indigenes, not the reverse. While the growing numbers of part-Aborigines were considered a social problem, not a racial problem. If teenage part-Aboriginal girls were often removed it was because of their appalling circumstances, ostracized by full-blood indigenes and sexually exploited by men on both sides of the racial divide.
This is explained by Windschuttle in his usual clear and matter-of-fact way. At a time when contraceptive devices were unavailable, official policy was not to suppress the birthrate, but very sensibly:
to suppress the sexual license of teenage girls and their unemployed boyfriends and to end the intergenerational cycle of economic dependency. [The Aborigines Protection Board] was trying to encourage Aborigines to adopt cultural values it thought were better for them, while at the same time trying to discourage cultural values it was convinced were degrading and destructive.
Two haunting prospects faced administrators at the time. First, that of more and more young part-Aboriginal women lost between two worlds. Secondly, fixed and irreversible indigenous welfare dependency.
We should be clear that the term “genocide,” as recklessly applied to the removal program, has nothing to do with anyone losing his life. What is meant is the expanded form of the accusation—“cultural genocide.” Today this is used to describe any attempt to change or prohibit a group’s manifestly self-destructive behavior. If the arrangements of indigenous group X are plainly contrary to public health, then a forceful effort to impose appropriate sanitary rules will send a shiver through white society: “I mean … isn’t that cultural genocide!” If group Y would rather spend its time illiterately on welfare forever, and authorities firmly introduce a reading and writing program, that would fall under the same indictment. Reductio ad absurdum? Not today—and not perhaps only in Australia. Two seemingly ineradicable features of Greek life, fakelaki or “little envelopes,” and rousfeti (political favors), are severely shaking Europe’s economy. One wonders, if only half-seriously, whether a resolute attempt to stamp them out might end up in some court in the Hague.
Parenthetically, it should be added here that while their customs differed widely from our own, traditional Aboriginal societies, like other tribal societies, were comprehensively bound by rules. These can be studied in the writings of A. P. Elkin, W. E. H. Stanner, and L. R. Hiatt, distinguished Australian anthropologists who knew tribal life when it was still intact. But that was then. For decades now, that life has been in ruins; in many lawless northern settlements there are no rules; and although most urban bien pensants don’t want to know about it, Windschuttle provides a valuable service by describing the development of this situation in grim historical detail.
It is disagreeable reading about frontier conditions on the outskirts of ranches and remote country towns, about the alcoholism and violence, the promiscuity and disease, the child abuse. But it is essential to set down these things, precisely because the regiment of academics who created the myth of Australia’s Stolen Children try hard not to mention them. In their eyes it is tasteless and insensitive to do so—and no doubt much else besides. Yet these pathologies are the blindingly obvious reason for child removal. Not racism. Not cultural genocide. These horrors constitute the suppressio veri that requires the complementary suggestio falsi of “racism” to explain why children were separated from their parents. Their suppression also constitutes the lie at the heart of the so-called Stolen Generations.
After the phrase became popular on the Left, a government report, Bringing Them Home, published the testimony of witnesses claiming to have been forcibly removed. Their stories were full of misery and woe. But were they either reliable or representative? No testing of the often defamatory tales was done; no other point of view was welcomed; no comparative data were offered. But a perfect media storm alleging genocidal welfare practices swept the country. Windschuttle closely examines four prominent men and women who claimed to be forcibly taken, and who achieved celebrity through their biographical writings, showing how they each falsified or seriously distorted the facts.
In the most famous, portrayed in the mendacious film Rabbit-Proof Fence, the removal of three girls aged eight, eleven, and fourteen had little to do with their Aboriginality. They were removed because half-castes in remote full-blood communities were social outcasts. In this case the girls were isolated, out of control, and running wild with a bunch of cowboys, and were therefore removed just as white youngsters comparably at risk would be removed. In another case, a female infant born to an Aboriginal woman and a white father was handed over to a home for children when the drought-stricken and impoverished pastoralist could no longer support either his partner, his child, or himself. That infant, named Lowitja O’Donoghue, subsequently grew up to become “the nation’s most honored Aboriginal leader,” and was made Australian of the Year in 1984.
Were those rescued from such situations grateful? One needs to remember that gratitude is a complicated moral emotion sometimes mixed with resentment, while fostering and adoption often have unintended effects. Even those who later had distinguished careers in public life seem to welcome the cachet that allegedly being stolen offers. In the most extraordinary example, Windschuttle describes a talented part-Aboriginal youngster named Charles Perkins who might easily have been just another drunk in Alice Springs. Instead, his mother allowed him to be educated and he became a highly successful football player, the first of his people to get a university degree, and finally Director of Australia’s Federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs. This same man ended up railing wildly against everyone who had helped him along the way: “I owe nothing to the whites of Australia. Nothing!”
Fifty years ago, the Australian Left strongly favored literacy, health, and the assimilation of indigenes. It was a broadly sensible goal. But Left progressivism is incompatible with the romantic idealization of hunting and gathering: the one wants to go forward, the other wants to go back. As anthropological romanticism triumphed in the sphere of social policy, the Left embraced “Aboriginality” over literacy and vocational skills, assimilation was denounced as supremely evil, and Australia’s northern indigenes began their slide into the oblivion of fixed dependency—illiterate, vocationally disabled, desperately in need of help. But to intervene, let alone to remove children, is today howled down as cultural genocide.
That has been the baleful long-term consequence of the myth of the Stolen Generations. By exposing the whole matter, by refusing to euphemize unavoidably ugly issues, by examining a mass of historical data nobody troubled to look closely at before, by revealing the shoddiness of his adversaries’ research, and by realistically reducing the fanciful figures they proposed, Keith Windschuttle has placed the nation in his debt.