Since the 1970s, the dominant voices within academic history have worked to generate a widespread cynicism about the nature of Western democracies, with the aim of questioning their moral and political legitimacy. In the United States, the most dramatic manifestation of this occurred in 1992. That year, the quincentenary of the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus became the occasion of an extraordinary outpouring of moral outrage. In book after book, the European discovery and settlement was denounced by many academics as one of the greatest calamities to have befallen not only the native Americans but the human species as a whole and, indeed, the planet itself. In American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World, the American academic historian David Stannard accused Columbus of starting a process of unprecedented human destruction. He wrote: “The road to Auschwitz led straight through the heart of the Americas.” In The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, the historian and environmentalist Kirkpatrick Sale accused Columbus of finding a land where man lived in harmony with nature and of transforming it into one where he not only rapaciously exploited nature but also exported his form of environmental abuse to the whole globe. All this has left us, Sale wrote, “at risk of the imperilment—worse, the likely destruction—of the earth.” This critique was not just noble savage romanticism. The fate of the indigenes of the New World was elevated to the one of the critical gauges of Western civilization’s moral legitimacy. As Stannard’s evocative comparison with Nazi Germany demonstrated, the very claim of the West to be civilized was itself under question.
A second manifestation of the same sentiment in 1992 came in the national history standards for American high schools. In the curriculum documents, George Washington made only a fleeting appearance and was never described as the country’s first president. The founding of the environmentalist Sierra Club and the feminist National Organization for Women were considered noteworthy events but the first gathering of the U.S. Congress was not. The committee that wrote these standards so denigrated the achievements of Western culture—and so overemphasized claims about the alleged oppression of the lower classes, women, and ethnic groups—that the U.S. Senate made an unprecedented intervention, voting to prevent two government educational bodies from certifying the standards. The underlying aim of the authors was to undermine the legitimacy of the political institutions created by the United States’ founding fathers. The heroes of American history were to be portrayed in the form of their oppressed victims.
Since then, little has improved and much has worsened. Let me demonstrate some of the ways in which national and imperial histories are still being used to denigrate Western culture and society and give the nations of the West, especially those descended from Britain, a historical identity of which they can only be ashamed.
On the Internet, there is a site called H-Net, an informal forum for academics working in the humanities and social sciences. For the last three years, one thread on the site has run hot with a protracted and sometimes acrimonious debate about the use of weapons of mass destruction in eighteenth-century America. Academic interest in the H-Net debate correlated strongly with the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in search of WMDs, thereby confirming the familiar adage that each generation rewrites history to answer questions that its own time finds interesting.
The issue at stake was whether the British Army had used smallpox as a form of biological warfare against the American Indians in the 1760s. The weight of opinion on this site was that it had, even though the evidence is slight. At Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh), the Indian chief Pontiac had laid siege to the fort where all the British settlers in the region had congregated for protection. Smallpox had broken out inside the fort. Its Swiss commander Simeon Ecuyer isolated those infected in a hospital. When two Indian emissaries visited the site in June 1763 to urge the British to abandon their stronghold, Ecuyer refused to leave but, as an apparent gesture of submission, gave them presents of two blankets and a handkerchief. He had taken them from the hospital’s infected patients. A month later in New York, Ecuyer’s commanding officer, General Jeffrey Amherst, learned there had been an outbreak of the disease in the region and, unaware then of Ecuyer’s actions, he wrote that it would be a good idea to “send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians” as well as “to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.”
It is most unlikely that Ecuyer’s gifts started this epidemic. Credible reports from settlers who escaped the Indians said it was already prevalent among the tribes months earlier. Anyway, smallpox is almost always transmitted by infected persons, and only rarely by objects such as blankets. While it is possible for the disease to be transmitted from the scabs of pustules that have brushed onto blankets, it is very unlikely to spread this way. Indeed, some of the scientifically qualified participants in the H-Net debate pointed out that in China and Turkey, where techniques for inoculating people against smallpox had been devised before the eighteenth century, the inhalation of powdered pustule scabs was a commonly used preventative measure.
There are other stories of the British use of smallpox as a means of biological warfare in the eighteenth century, including suggestions that they used it against the American rebels during the sieges of Boston and Quebec in the winter of 1775–1776. Apart from the Pontiac Rebellion, however, no incriminating documents have ever surfaced, and all the other outbreaks of the disease can be more credibly explained by inadvertent transmission.
In short, the only credible evidence we have about the British using a biological weapon in North America is based on one incident in 1763. Yet today, academic literature about British imperialism’s impact on indigenous people invariably cites this incident, usually out of context and without any of the qualifications the story deserves. In Australia, in an attempt to lend credence to claims that the British deliberately gave smallpox to the Aborigines, the historian Henry Reynolds uses Fort Pitt as a precursor:
In an infamous incident, two visiting Indian chiefs on a diplomatic mission were given blankets from the smallpox hospital. The evidence indicates that the action was deliberate and calculated.
Two officers on the First Fleet to Australia had previously served in America. Hence, Reynolds says they probably knew of the use of smallpox as an effective WMD and, though there is no evidence whatsoever apart from the presence of some variolous matter in the surgeon’s medical kit, he suggests they possibly used this to infect the Aborigines deliberately.
Another Australian historian, David Day, in his Conquest: A New History of the Modern World, has a chapter entitled “The Genocidal Imperative,” which discusses smallpox among the Aborigines. He deploys the American evidence to back his case:
Some circumstantial evidence suggest[s] that it may have been deliberately instigated to remove the perceived threat that the Aborigines then posed to Sydney’s small garrison, much as the British army had used smallpox in 1763 against an Indian uprising that threatened their hold on North America.
Day’s subsequent paragraph draws an analogy between this and the Nazi program to eliminate the Slavs and Russians from eastern Europe in pursuit of Lebensraum.
Thus, on a very thin and dubious platform of evidence, academic historians have erected a story that compares the actions of the British against the Indians in eighteenth-century America to that of the Nazis against non-Aryan races in twentieth-century Europe. They want their readers to believe that British Army decisions that were entirely opportunistic and made under the duress of battle are comparable to the Nazis’ highly planned, efficiently organized, and heavily funded Final Solution. During the Cold War, you could find any number of Marxist academics who would argue for the moral equivalence of communism and capitalism. Since the fall of the USSR, the heat has gone out of that issue, but the same odious kind of comparison is still being made, only this time between Nazism and the liberal democracies of the West.
Let me here make a brief riposte about what the best evidence now says about the use of smallpox as a WMD in Australia. The variolous matter brought by the British to Sydney as a vaccine was quite useless for any purpose by the time it got there, since it could not have survived intact its transit through the tropics during the eight-month voyage from Portsmouth. One very good historian, Judy Campbell, has spent almost the whole of her working life establishing that each of the three major outbreaks of smallpox among the Aborigines in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries derived not from the British at all but from fishermen from the Sulawesi city of Macassar, in present-day Indonesia, who for more than two centuries had made seasonal expeditions to northern Australia.
In the production by historians of big, overarching studies—especially those for high school and undergraduate textbooks —they are largely dependent on secondary sources, that is, the work of other historians rather than the original documents themselves. This leaves them particularly vulnerable to the kind of political misinformation I have been discussing. Anyone who reads Empire by Niall Ferguson, or sees the television series based on the book, will find his work peppered with atrocities the British supposedly inflicted on their indigenous subjects. This is despite the fact that Ferguson was engaged in the academically heroic task of arguing that the British Empire was, on balance, a great benefit to mankind because of the economic investment and technological modernization it brought to the underdeveloped world. He accepts, nonetheless, that in early-nineteenth-century Australia, the Aborigines of Tasmania were hunted down, confined, and ultimately exterminated: “an event,” he writes, “which truly merits the now overused term ‘genocide.’” Ferguson’s source for this claim is the book on early Australia by the expatriate art critic Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore. Hughes himself took his interpretation from another book by the Australian historian Lyndall Ryan called The Aboriginal Tasmanians. In 2001 and 2002 when I undertook the task of checking Ryan’s footnotes to verify her original sources, I found to my surprise that her interpretation of frontier warfare and genocide was based on invented incidents, concocted footnotes, altered documents, and gross exaggeration of the Aboriginal death toll. I could find credible evidence that white settlers had killed a total of 121 Aborigines, mostly in self-defense or in hot pursuit of Aboriginal killers. The rest of the population of about 2000 natives had died from diseases to which long isolation on their island had given them no immunity, principally influenza, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. On top of this, venereal disease rendered most of the women infertile.
The Tasmanian colony had been founded in 1803 in the middle of the British campaign to end the slave trade. Its longest serving governor was George Arthur, a supporter of William Wilberforce, and who in his previous post in British Honduras had set the colony’s indigenous slaves free. His sensitivity to the native question, in fact, was what got him the job in Australia. He wanted to civilize and modernize the Aborigines, not exterminate them. His intentions were not to foster violence towards the Aborigines but to prevent it. The charge of genocide, which Niall Ferguson had accepted in all good faith, is not only wrong; it is maliciously wrong—the defamation of a good man and a willful misrepresentation of the truth.
This political exercise in moral equivalence between British colonialism and Nazi racism originated in the 1960s in the work of the American political theorist Pierre van den Berghe. He defined all the British settler societies as “herrenvolk democracies.” Herrenvolk is German for “master race.” As Van den Berghe wrote, these are “regimes such as those of the United States or South Africa that are democratic for the master race but tyrannical for the subordinate groups.” In colonial history, and certainly in the history written in former colonies themselves such as Australia, this direct comparison with the Nazis has long been prominent and, in many academic schools, dominant. All the British settler societies are now routinely tarred with this brush.
I stress that the phenomenon described here is not merely a matter of alternative interpretations about which people of different political, religious, or moral persuasions might legitimately differ. None of the key terms I have discussed so far—herrenvolk democracies, genocide, weapons of mass destruction—derive from the periods to which they are applied. They are modern concepts imposed upon the past for ideological reasons. The people who do this are quite open about their aims and methods. The most prominent historian of Aboriginal Australia, Henry Reynolds, has overtly abandoned any pretense of objectivity. He argues:
History should not only be relevant but politically utilitarian. … It should aim to right old injustices, to discriminate in favour of the oppressed, to actively rally to the cause of liberation.
In the United States, three of the authors of the 1992 high school history standards take the same line. In their book History on Trial, Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross Dunn argue for what they call “a history education that is fit for a democratic society” which at the same time “represents a commitment to multiculturalism.” They note that the last few decades have witnessed “a remarkable effort to broaden the scope of history education to ensure that the experiences of all classes, regions and ethnoracial groups, as well as both genders, are included in it.” They want to overturn Thomas Carlyle’s definition, inscribed in the rotunda of the Library of Congress, that “History is the biography of great men,” or as they put it, of “great white Protestant men.” They ask rhetorically:
Can there be any grand narrative more powerful, coherent, democratic, and inspiring than the struggles of groups that have suffered discrimination, exploitation, and hostility but have overcome passivity and resignation to challenge their exploiters, fight for legal rights, resist and cross racial boundaries, and hence embrace and advance the American credo that “all men are created equal”?
This argument has had a powerful appeal within the education system and has clearly won the day. The problem, however, is that it is simply not true. To treat the modern history of the United States or any other Western country as a story of a struggle against oppression by identity groups is to falsify it. The ending of slavery and the emancipation of women were both developments that were clearly morally justified and fulfilled both Enlightenment and Christian principles of human equality. But they were achieved largely by the political efforts not of slaves or women but of white Protestants of the male sex. The “common folk” and most of the now familiar sexual and ethnic identity groups have played only intermittent roles in shaping history, usually in periods of civil unrest or in spasmodic mass phenomena such as migration. This was because for most of the time most of the people were not causally effective: they were the objects rather than the agents of history; they were on the receiving end of major historic events, not their instigators.
The American War of Independence, for instance, was initiated and won almost entirely by the efforts of those great white Protestant men who are now anathema to the multiculturalists. Moreover, the contribution made by two other currently revered identity groups, Afro-Americans and American Indians, is even more of a multicultural embarrassment, because in 1776 most of them who took a stand supported the British. The American Civil War was fought almost entirely between white men. Indeed, a great many white men died so that the slaves could be free.
To Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn, however, these facts are inconvenient because they run counter to the process of “empowerment” they want their kind of history to foster. In their mental universe, there are no disinterested truths, only political positions. “Modern historiography,” they write, “has taught us that historians can never fully detach their scholarly work from their own education, attitudes, ideological dispositions and culture.” Disinterested scholarship, they contend, “is not simply an uneducated view. It is also an ideological position of traditionalists and the political Right.”
That last comment is one of the few points these authors make that is indisputably true. The academic Left has abandoned historical objectivity, and only conservatives remain to defend the notion. The latter should assume this responsibility with both humility and trepidation. Despite the widespread acceptance of the adage I cited earlier, history is not something that each generation should rewrite simply for its own purposes or political whims. History should be a pursuit of the truth about the past and, as all those who have joined this pursuit have discovered, the truth is always hard to find. Real historians should regard themselves as participants in a great process of the accumulation of knowledge—a process that distinguishes our civilization. Today, the practices originated by the discipline of history—the ability to stand outside your own political system, your own culture and your religion, to criticize your own society, and to pursue the truth—are things we take so much for granted they are almost part of the air we breath. Without them, our idea of freedom of expression, and the political environment of liberal democracy in which it flourishes, could not exist. This is a distinctly Western phenomenon. The idea was never produced by Confucian or Hindu culture. Under Islam it had a brief life in the fourteenth century but was never heard of again. In the twentieth century, the first thing that every single communist government in the world did was get out the historical airbrush. Rather than take the idea of history for granted, we should regard it as a rare and precious legacy that is our job to nurture and to pass on to future generations.
The history wars now underway have both their upside and their downside. On the upside, the academic left has walked away from the principle of objectivity and the defense of the truth, and has left those fields to conservatives. In the long run this will cost them dearly, for the simple reason that the overwhelming majority of people who read history want it to be true. Outside the captive audience of the classroom, no one will take seriously any historian who declares himself a fiction writer or a myth maker. The direction taken by the theory of history under the influence of postmodernism is ultimately self-destructive. Indeed, in my own struggle with the forces of invention in Aboriginal history, my opponents are now falling over themselves to deny any connection with postmodernist relativism about the truth. They have found they cannot win any public debate by appeals to multiple truths or relativist perspectives. This debate has fortunately been conducted largely in the public media, whose readers and viewers are not interested in such ideological subtleties. They want to know what really happened.
The downside of the debate is the success the academic left has had in undermining Western identity. Thirty years of denigrating Western civilization have left their mark on high school and university curriculums and in the pervading atmosphere in which learning now takes place. The courses in Western Civilization that once distinguished the American university system are becoming thinner on the ground. Even those who still teach in the surviving courses of this kind deploy their words with caution, lest they seem triumphalist about extolling the Western contributions to humanity. These contributions, such as scientific method, universal humanitarian values, democratic politics, classical liberal economics, philosophy, music, art, and literature, are not allowed to be called superior, despite their obvious superiority to any of their competitors. Instead, we have academics like the Australian sociologist Bob Connell arguing:
The idea that Western rationality must produce universally valid knowledge increasingly appears doubtful. It is, on the face of it, ethnocentric. Certain Muslim philosophers point to the possibility of grounding science in different assumptions about the world, specifically those made by Islam, and thus develop the concept of Islamic science.
Let us hope those scientists in Tehran now trying to make an Iranian nuclear bomb heed this ethnically sensitive advice.
The other major consequence on the downside is that identity group histories now proliferate. In the United States, many people now regard themselves as Afro-Americans, Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans, all with histories of their own that lean heavily on the concept of grievance. In Australia and New Zealand, many more people than is plausibly possible now identify themselves as indigenous, in part because of the more generous welfare and educational benefits available to those who do, but primarily to wallow in grievance also.
The wry stoicism that once marked the Australian character is today in short supply. One hopeful sign for the future is that young Australians, in defiance of all the anti-war propaganda they get at school, are attending in growing numbers the ceremonies at the Dardanelles every April. But even though Australia has lost only one serviceman in Iraq, public opinion is now drifting away from the strong support the war had this time last year and which gave Prime Minister John Howard a landslide election victory.
The ability of democracies to engage in warfare is strongly influenced by public opinion, which itself is strongly influenced by propaganda in the media and the education system. The current history wars have not yet included modern Iraq. But they are very much about Western imperialism and its consequences. The lessons our youth learn about how the West has related to the peoples of the non-West are readily transferable. If the academic left can persuade enough young people that their imperial forbears were the moral equivalents of Nazi storm troopers, they will make a real contribution to the effort to turn public opinion around on this latest conflict, too. The history wars are not only about our past but also our present and our future.