As a preview to the Sydney Olympic Games last September, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about the great issue it said was dividing the Australian nation, the treatment of its Aboriginal people. The two journalists who wrote the story opened with an account of an incident near Hobart in Tasmania in 1804 when British soldiers fired on a party of Aboriginal men, women, and children, who were out hunting kangaroos and armed only with clubs. This was “the opening shot in a war that would result in the near-extermination of Tasmanian Aborigines,” the journalists wrote. “Some of the 50 or so killed that day were salted down and sent to Sydney as anthropological curiosities.”
The fate of the indigenous Tasmanians is today frequently described in the liberal media as an example of British imperial genocide. This is because they were a distinct ethnic group, physically different from mainland Aborigines, and their last full-blooded member died in 1876. To underline the political reach of these events, The Wall Street Journal quoted the current federal senator for the Greens Party, Bob Brown: “We have to come to grips with our horrendous past,” he said, “and nowhere is it worse than in Tasmania.”
The New York Times took a similar approach. The day after the Sydney Games began it published an editorial entitled “The Other Australia,” which admonished the country for its treatment of its Aboriginal people and recounted the horrors of its history. The editorial, which was reprinted around the world in the International Herald Tribune, said:
The Aboriginal experience is depressingly similar to that of Native Americans in the United States. European settlers viciously drove the Aborigines from their land, massacring thousands with impunity.
At the same time, another article on this subject was syndicated to English-language newspapers around the world. This was written by Ben Kiernan, the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History and Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University. (My copy of his article came from the Bangkok Post.) Kiernan is an expatriate Australian, best known for his books on the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Despite his academic credentials, Kiernan made no pretense to treat his topic dispassionately. Entitled “Australia’s Aboriginal Genocides,” his story was replete with terminology such as “ethnic cleansing” and “transit camps” designed to draw comparisons with the practices of Nazi Germany and contemporary Yugoslavia.
Almost without dissent, the Australian liberal intelligentsia has taken this story to heart.
Kiernan wrote of British colonists in the nineteenth century mounting “punitive expeditions” and committing “hundreds of massacres.” In the Gippsland district of Victoria, for instance, “a series of horrendous massacres” reduced the Aboriginal population from 2000 to 126, he said. In Central Australia, he claimed, 40 percent of the indigenous population had been shot dead. In northern Queensland, the Aborigines “were hunted like wild beasts, having lived for years in a state of absolute terror of white predators.” He also recorded the same 1804 incident at Hobart described in The Wall Street Journal, putting the total killed at forty. Among a long list of atrocities since the 1790s, Kiernan noted that as late as 1926 whites shot and burned to death 100 Aborigines at Forrest River in Western Australia. “The two police officers involved were acquitted and promoted.” All told, Kiernan wrote, 20,000 Aborigines were killed resisting the British occupation of Australia between 1788 and 1901.
The desire by Australian authors to portray the history of race relations in their country in the blackest terms possible reached its nadir in a book by the journalist Phillip Knightley, Australia: A Biography of a Nation, published in London last year. Knightley, another expatriate who was a member of the famous team of investigative journalists on the London Sunday Times in the 1960s, devoted a chapter of his book to “Black Australia.” He agreed that the story amounted to “genocide,” and he drew what he called “striking parallels” between the Holocaust and the fate of the Aborigines.
Defeated in the Aboriginal Wars of the nineteenth century, they had become a forgotten race, reviled, murdered, harassed, discriminated against, and subject to cruel and unusual punishments. It remains one of the mysteries of history that Australia was able to get away with a racist policy that included segregation and dispossession and bordered on slavery and genocide, practices unknown in the civilized world in the first half of the twentieth century until Nazi Germany turned on the Jews in the 1930s.
Instead of Kiernan’s death toll of 20,000, Knightley claimed the number of Aborigines killed in the “wars and massacres” of the past two centuries was much higher. “Experts I have consulted say that 50,000 would not be an exaggeration. It could be as high as 100,000.” This is from a total pre-colonial indigenous population of about 300,000. Yet until recently, Knightley noted, very few outsiders were aware of the scale of the carnage. “It is amazing that Australians managed to keep from the rest of the world the fact that they were massacring the Aboriginals.”
Almost without dissent, the Australian liberal intelligentsia has taken this story to heart. The Wall Street Journal is correct in saying that it is now the most divisive issue in the nation. On the one side stand the media, the arts community, the Labor Party parliamentary opposition, almost all academics, and a large proportion of the judiciary who accept this account of Australia’s past. On the other side is the conservative prime minister, John Howard, and many of his constituents and supporters who argue that, even if true, the events happened so long ago that current generations cannot be held responsible for them. Howard’s opponents, however, blame all the current problems faced by outback Aboriginal communities—chronic alcoholism, petrol sniffing, heroin addiction, domestic violence, unemployment, and appalling health and education standards—on their dispossession from tribal lands and the subsequent loss of their traditional hunter-gatherer culture. Howard has faced enormous public pressure to issue a formal apology over the issue and thus open the way to large-scale claims for compensation, but so far he has refused.
In the 1990s, the High Court of Australia made two decisions that meant large tracts of the continent would be turned into “native title,” a new form of property that could be held only by people of indigenous descent. One of the judges who made these decisions, Sir William Deane, the recently retired Governor-General of Australia, based much of his argument on the writings of Australian historians who had shown the nation, he said, that it had inherited “a legacy of unutterable shame.”
What we have here is a version of Australian history designed to serve highly politicized ends.
Despite the certainty with which such pronouncements have been made, and despite the political weight they carry, the body of historical work from which they derive is actually very small. The history of relations between Aborigines and British colonists only began to be taken seriously at an academic level in the 1970s. Claims about large-scale massacres and of a death toll in the tens of thousands date from the 1980s and, in fact, derive largely from the work of one historian, Henry Reynolds, and his book The Other Side of the Frontier (1981). Reynolds and his colleagues have generated a number of academic followers and have established an intellectual framework within which most research on the subject has since been done.
Like several of his supporters who now hold prominent chairs of history at Australian universities, Reynolds was a member of the generation of Sixties radicals. He remains a political activist today and recently wrote Aboriginal Sovereignty, a book that has inspired the leading black radicals in the Aboriginal movement. The book argues for a separate Aboriginal state governed by Aboriginal laws where traditional Aboriginal culture can flourish. It identifies with the international “first peoples” political movement that wants independence from imperial domination for all indigenous cultures and which is currently working through the United Nations to achieve that end. In Australia, the current overt demand is for a treaty with the rest of the country. For public consumption in the media, the activists justify a treaty simply on the grounds of “rectifying past injustices.” In writings addressed to their own supporters, however, they see a treaty establishing the grounds for a separate state and government.
In other words, what we have here is a version of Australian history designed to serve highly politicized ends. To date, it has largely been accepted without demur, except by a handful of older historians such as Geoffrey Blainey, who has labelled it “black armband history.” And yet, in terms of acceptable scholarship, it has very little to recommend it. When it is closely examined, much of the evidence for the claims about massacres, terrorism, and genocide turns out to be highly suspect. Most of it is very poorly founded, other parts are seriously mistaken, and a good deal of it is outright fabrication.
Let me give an idea of the nature of the debate with two specific examples. The first is the 1804 incident at Hobart. The British officers who were there at the time said a settler and his wife had been surrounded in their hut and threatened by more than 200 Aborigines armed with spears. Soldiers from a nearby camp came to the rescue and shot, at most, three people. One native man was killed on the spot, another’s body was found in a nearby valley, and a third was led away by his companions bleeding from wounds. These officers had no ostensible reason to lie in their reports or to downplay the conflict. They were only doing their duty. At a government inquiry in 1830, however, a former convict testified that in 1804 he thought “forty to fifty” blacks had been killed, even though he acknowledged he had not been at the scene at the time.
Despite this claim being no more than a rumour twenty-six years after the event, it has allowed those historians who want to beat up this issue to say that witnesses have claimed “up to fifty” Aborigines were killed in this incident. Hence, when translated into general works of history and into the press, a defensive action with three adult male casualties has become a massacre of fifty innocent men, women, and children. The Wall Street Journal’s claim that the bodies were “salted down” and sent to Sydney for anthropological investigation is another rumor first made in 1830 that had no contemporary corroboration.
The event at Forrest River in 1926, described by Kiernan as one of the “hundreds of massacres” that took place in the twentieth century, has more surface plausibility. The Western Australian government appointed a royal commissioner to look into the allegations. The commissioner found that two policemen, while on the hunt for an Aboriginal who had murdered a pastoralist, had themselves shot eleven natives in their custody and burnt their remains beyond recognition. Until recently, historians had no good reason to doubt his findings. The figure of 100 dead cited by Kiernan is in a different position. It comes from Aboriginal oral history collected in the 1970s and has no more status than local mythology.
In 1999, however, the Perth journalist Rod Moran published a detailed analysis of the evidence and conclusions of the Forrest River Royal Commission. In his book Massacre Myth, Moran proves beyond reasonable doubt that no such killings ever took place. There were no eyewitnesses, no forensic evidence of human beings killed, nor any ballistic evidence. He produces a medical officer’s analysis made at the time, and largely ignored by later commentators, that charred bones found at some camp sites were not of human origin or were of indeterminate origin. They were probably the remains of animals cooked over camp fires. The most incriminating evidence of a massacre had been a list of twenty-nine Aborigines from the local mission who had gone missing, presumed killed, at the time of the police patrol. Moran shows this list, compiled by the head of the mission, is fraudulent. He examined the mission’s surviving documents and found several of the Aborigines on the list were recorded on the attendance roll alive and well two and three years later. Some of them were recorded as having died well before the police patrol took place. Others had not been seen at the mission for up to two years before the events concerned. Moran persuasively argues that the mission head fabricated not only this list but also other evidence upon which the commission had relied.
Research of my own has since found that this behavior was characteristic of a number of well-known missionaries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These missionaries took any rumor about violence towards Aborigines, no matter how unreliable or vague, and propagated it without checking its accuracy. Why would they do such a thing? They wanted to show the need for their own institutions. By portraying colonial society as awash with violence towards the blacks, they justified their policy of separating Aborigines from white society. They wanted their missions to appear as havens in a heartless world. This fulfilled the Protestant evangelical theology on which their actions were based: the everyday, material world was full of evil and corruption and the only road to salvation for Aborigines lay in a closed religious community. Here they could be kept apart from the modern world and separated from white society. It also meant the missionaries would keep their funding and their jobs. They hoped to be seen by their peers in the colony and their sponsors in London as the saviors of the Aborigines.
The rumours and myths they disseminated have colored the whole record of Aboriginal-European relations in Australia’s early colonial history. They have also influenced policy ever since. Those who claim to be the friends of Aborigines have long supported separatism—from the missions and government reserves of the nineteenth century down to the proposals for a treaty and separate state today.
Recent academic historians have used the claims of missionaries to construct a lurid series of massacre stories, adding an extra dimension of their own. Until 1981 no historian had been confident enough to estimate the total number of Aborigines killed on the frontiers of the British occupation. No systematic count of bodies had ever been made, and the handful of researchers then in the field knew many reports of killings were unreliable. The most reputable historian in the field, Charles Rowley, had said in 1970 that, compared to the impact on indigenous peoples of other colonizing powers, the Australian story amounted to “comparatively small-scale homicide.” All this changed with the publication of Henry Reynolds’s The Other Side of the Frontier. He estimated that settlers killed at least 20,000 Aborigines between 1788 and 1901. Relative to the size of their population, this figure suggested that between 5 and 20 percent of all Aborigines in the colonial period died violently by white hands. This was, Reynolds said, a shocking indictment.
Twenty thousand blacks were killed before federation. Their burial mound stands out as a landmark of awesome size on the peaceful plains of colonial history. If the bodies had been white our histories would be heavy with their story, a forest of monuments would celebrate their “sacrifice.” In parts of the continent the Aboriginal death toll overshadows even that of the overseas wars of the twentieth century.
This figure is nowhere near as great as the indigenous death toll from disease in the early nineteenth century, but it is still a disturbing total. It now entered the established record and become part of the received wisdom of Australian historiography. It is the current consensus among Australian historians. (The figure of 50,000– 100,000 cited by Phillip Knightley is pure invention. The only “authority” to suggest a total this high is a book of popular history written by Bruce Elder, a journalist whose normal specialty is rock ’n’ roll music. It is heavily ironic that Knightley, the author of a very good book on war reporting and propaganda, The First Casualty, has himself succumbed to the kind of atrocity stories he has criticized others for accepting.)
Very few historians have ever questioned the veracity of Reynolds’s figure of 20,000 dead or traced its sources to their origins. It derived from a compilation he made of estimates by historians of various regions. One of these regions is Queensland where Reynolds’s source is his own research. In The Other Side of the Frontier, he said that he had spent several years going through official records and press reports and had found that Queensland was by far the bloodiest area for Aboriginal-white conflict. As the Queensland pastoral frontier expanded from 1850 to 1900, some 10,000 Aborigines were killed by whites. In his book, Reynolds said he had published the actual details of this research in 1978 in a small university monograph entitled Race Relations in North Queensland. Even though 10,000 in Queensland was a remarkably high figure—the other regional studies he cited produced a combined death toll for the rest of the continent of less than 3000 —no scholar doubted Reynolds’s claims nor investigated his methodology. For the next twenty years, Australian historians were happy to cite him as the authority.
In July and August 2000, I began a project to investigate the evidence behind Aboriginal killings. One of the first works I looked up was Reynolds’s 1978 monograph, Race Relations in North Queensland, a typescript volume held by only a few libraries. To my surprise, I found it is not about Aboriginal deaths at all. It is a tally of the number of whites killed by Aborigines. Nowhere does it mention 10,000 Aboriginal dead. It produces evidence that Aborigines may have killed between 800 and 850 Europeans from 1850 to 1900. The only mention it makes of Aboriginal deaths is in one sole footnote where the author says that while it is impossible to do anything but guess at the number of natives killed, their death rate “may have been” ten times more than that of the Europeans. In other words, as well as being a false citation of evidence, this document meant the overall historical consensus about Aboriginal killings had a gaping hole in its empirical foundation.
I presented this finding to a conference in Sydney last September, arguing that it amounted to a major piece of academic deception. I also presented some of the evidence now emerging about the exaggeration and invention involved in some of the best-known events, such as the Forrest River “massacre.” Because Reynolds has a high media profile (he has had a television series called Frontier made from his books, and the liberal daily, The Sydney Morning Herald, recently nominated him as one of the 100 greatest living Australians), my paper attracted considerable media attention. Very little of it, however, was sympathetic to my findings. Most commentary was outraged that I had dared to question the orthodox position. Four academic historians and the political scientist, Robert Manne—once the editor of the leading Australian conservative intellectual magazine, Quadrant, but now a member of the Left establishment—compared me in the press to the Holocaust denier David Irving.
In a mainly ad hominem reply, Henry Reynolds himself conceded that his figure of 20,000 was only a guess. He also conceded my critique that, on the available evidence, most of the killings of Aborigines that had occurred comprised individually small numbers. Almost all homicides were in ones and twos and the phenomenon of mass killing was rare and isolated. He completely ignored, however, the charge of academic deception and stood by his original tally as an “educated and conservative” guess. He had done “a mountain of research” and had published his reading in a twenty-five-page bibliography. Because his work rested on such a great body of reading, he said people should trust his judgment.
While I had demonstrated that there was very little reliable evidence for most of the claims about the killing of Aborigines, defenders of the orthodoxy replied that this is just what you would expect in a frontier war situation. Pastoralists displaced both Aborigines and the game they depended upon. Faced with the loss of their land and starvation, the Aborigines understandably responded with violence. The orthodox view claimed that the frontier was a place where whites could kill blacks with impunity. No other settlers on the frontier would have reported them and the police either turned a blind eye or were complicit in massacres themselves. Hence widespread killings would have occurred without leaving any trace in the historical evidence.
This is, of course, a circular argument. To explain why there would be no evidence of widespread killings, you claim there was a frontier war situation, which, under this definition, is a place where there were widespread killings but where no evidence of them remained.
The most revealing comment was made by Dr. Bain Attwood of Monash University who wrote: “Most of the historical sources that might have enabled us to enumerate the number of Aboriginal people killed on the frontier have, for various reasons, either never existed or have since been lost or destroyed.” Attwood went on to claim that “very little historical interpretation is verifiable in any strict sense,” and that historians arrive at the truth on the basis of a “scholarly consensus.” Now, the notion of a scholarly consensus might be acceptable if there was sufficient evidence to support it. However, if the evidence “never existed” or can no longer be found, then the consensus can owe nothing to scholarship. It is no more than a shared ideological position. To imagine that one can arrive at conclusions without evidence, but simply on the basis of an agreement between those currently in the field, is to abandon historical methodology in favor of politics—he who has the numbers determines the truth. Unfortunately, this postmodernist assumption now dominates the teaching of history at our universities.
My critique of the current orthodoxy was published in a three-part series of articles in Quadrant late last year. I am now expanding this work into a book that makes three principal arguments. First, rather than genocide and frontier warfare, British colonization of Australia brought civilized society and the rule of law. Whites could not kill blacks with impunity. In fact, as the British government regularly reminded all its colonial governors, Aborigines were subjects of His Majesty and entitled to the protection of his laws. The penalty for the unlawful killing of an Aborigine was death, the same as for killing a white man. This was enshrined in one celebrated incident, the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838, where a group of convict and ex-convict stockmen killed twenty-eight Aboriginal men, women, and children encamped on a pastoral station. The overseer found the bodies and was appalled. He reported the incident and identified those responsible, who were subsequently tried for murder. Eleven were found guilty and seven were executed for the crime. Modern historians try to argue this event away by saying it was the exception rather than the rule. The fact remains, however, that it was a highly publicized case of the rule of law being upheld and justice being done in a way that could not fail to impress even the most crudely racist member of the then penal colony. There is a considerable body of other evidence from the pastoral frontier that shows the colonial police did their duty and the authorities scrutinized their activities closely.
Second, rather than evidence of Aboriginal killings “never existing” or being lost or destroyed, the documentary record is actually quite comprehensive. I am currently working on the archives of Tasmania, a very small society where, except for a gap of two years, there are good records of the activities of the entire British population from 1803 to 1831. The leading orthodox historian of Aboriginal-European relations in Tasmania, Professor Lyndall Ryan, claims that 700 natives were shot dead in this period. She acknowledges that half this figure is her own extrapolation based on guesswork but she nonetheless claims the archival record directly confirms a body count of 362 natives who died by gunshot. After surveying the secondary sources and checking all their citations of reports of killings in the original documents, however, I have found that a reliable figure of British killings of Aborigines in Tasmania is less than one-hundred. This is about half the number of colonists who died at native hands and is a figure that makes the notion of “frontier warfare” look absurd.
Third, the idea that Aborigines were patriots engaged in a brave but futile defense of their territory against the firepower of British imperialism is a piece of ideology derived from the anti-colonialist movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It has little to do with the mentality of tribal hunter-gatherers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century when colonization originally took place. Rather than nationalist hostility, the Aboriginal response to the arrival of the British was quite different. In some places, Aborigines were fascinated by, and strongly drawn towards, white society. Some became quickly dependent upon white food supplies and addicted to British products such as flour, sugar, tea, tobacco, and rum. In other places, personal quarrels between whites and natives, especially over women and the theft of food, led to violence. Under the Aboriginal notion of “payback” justice, an offense against a native could be revenged by a violent assault on any white man. The great majority of killings of both whites and blacks took place under these conditions. While they involved a genuine clash between the two different cultures’ notions of justice and law, rarely did they amount to “frontier warfare,” and certainly not the kind of anti-colonial guerrilla warfare familiar to most historians who came of age in the 1960s. As for the Aborigines being driven into conflict by starvation after native game was eliminated, many frontier pastoralists reported that, after they had removed the timber to expand their pastures, in most places they suffered “a plague” of kangaroos, whose populations exploded to take advantage of the greatly increased supply of grass.
It is true that the Aboriginal population declined dramatically after British colonization but this was almost entirely due to disease: smallpox on the north and east coasts (contracted from fishermen visiting from present-day Indonesia), and influenza and pneumonia in the rest of the continent and on Tasmania. The Aboriginal birth rate also plummeted, primarily due to the spread of venereal disease. In Tasmania and most of the south and east of the continent, the last full-blooded Aborigines died in the nineteenth century.
Aboriginal people themselves are voting with their feet and assimilating into white society.
The twentieth century, however, saw people of Aboriginal descent revive their numbers to their current total of 386,000. The great majority of these people today show little inclination to fulfil the romantic agenda set for them by recent historians and political activists. Rather than remain in outback communities, 73 percent of them today have moved to the cities and large regional centers. In the suburbs of Sydney alone, there are more people who identify themselves as Aboriginal than in the entire Western third of the continent, outside of Perth. Some 71 percent of Aborigines profess Christianity and a mere 2.06 percent adhere to traditional tribal religion. Two-thirds of the adults are married to or cohabiting with a nonindigenous spouse. In the cities, their employment, education levels, and health are much better than in the outback communities where the activists want them to live. In other words, at a time when Australian politics and the judiciary are making extensive land grants in the outback, and when academics, artists, and the news media are calling for the revival of traditional culture on tribal land, the great majority of Aboriginal people themselves are voting with their feet and assimilating into white society.
Why then has the history of Aboriginal-European relations become such a burning issue? It is more than a matter of the fabrication of evidence by a group of radical historians. A proper explanation of the phenomenon needs to tell us not only why so many prominent people have been drawn into the issue, but also why the historians themselves seized upon it in the first place.
As I have indicated, part of the explanation derives from the culture of the Sixties. At the time, Australian radicals took their political ideas largely from the United States. In race relations, they adopted the notion of “Black Power,” which claimed that policies for the assimilation or the integration of non-white people into white society were racist. The Marxist guru of the 1960s Herbert Marcuse and his followers argued that just as capitalism co-opted the working class into accepting capitalist ideology, so whites wanted to co-opt blacks into a form of integration that would betray black interests and suppress black culture. These ideas produced similar sentiments among Aboriginal activists in this country.
Black power also coincided with the decolonization of Asia and Africa. The emergent nationalist movements in these regions were anti-imperialist and anti-European. Many activists in Aboriginal politics came to identify British imperialism and racism as the cause of all their problems. Many historians in Australia swallowed this political agenda whole. They made their own contribution to it by manufacturing stories about the widespread killing of Aborigines in our past in order to shore up its separatist assumptions.
There is more to the issue, however, than the politics of the Sixties. It goes much deeper into Western culture. Ever since Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, there has been a heated debate within Western society over its relations with the indigenous peoples who subsequently came within its realm. The debate has been remarkably consistent over the whole of this five-hundred-year period in that, rather than focusing primarily on the indigenes, it has been far more concerned to use their presence to mount a critique of European society itself. European intellectuals have used the notion of primitive peoples living in harmony with a beneficent nature as a contrast to the complexity and restrictions of their own civilization. When Montaigne wrote his essay “On Cannibals” in 1580, he knew very little about the cannibals of the New World themselves, but he was able to imagine that they lived in a “state of purity” that contrasted sharply with all the institutions that were the bane of civilized man’s existence.
This is a nation, I should say to Plato, in which there is no sort of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name for a magistrate or for political superiority, no custom of servitude, no riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupations but leisure ones, no care for any but common kinship, no clothes, no agriculture, no metal, no use of wine or wheat. The very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, belittling, pardon— unheard of.
In the seventeenth century, the English poet John Dryden coined the term “noble savage” to refer to such “guiltless men.” In the eighteenth century, the French radical Jean-Jacques Rousseau portrayed “the celestial and majestic simplicity of man before corruption by society.”
In his monumental survey of Western culture over the past five centuries From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun records that a yearning for what he calls “primitivism” has been a powerful force over the whole of this time. Primitivism is one of the key impulses that inspired those who were drawn to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Barzun notes that this impulse is based on the perception that complex social systems are both oppressive and corrupt. Hence it repeatedly creates a demand for “the pure,” not only in religion and social organization, but across the whole of the culture: “pure love, pure thought, pure form in art.” It is the principal impulse behind the notion of the “noble savage.” Primitivism, Barzun argues, is closely related to the demand for emancipation. Together, the rejection of complex, rule-based society and the yearning for an earlier, simpler, more natural state of humanity, have regularly produced calls for the overthrow of existing social structures, in both the church and the polity.
Another illuminating recent analysis of this issue is by the Californian classicist Bruce Thornton. In Plagues of the Mind (ISI books, 1999) Thornton provides a critique of the prevailing radical cult of romanticism. He demonstrates the connection between the concept of the noble savage and a number of contemporary radical impulses, including the “deep green” environmentalist movement, American Indian politics, and recent directions in “New Age” feminism. The noble savage is manifest not only in recent Hollywood products such as Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas, but has also been a staple of American political radicalism. Thornton argues that, since Rousseau, the concept has nourished those revolutionary political movements—from the Jacobins to the Khmer Rouge—who have wanted to purge society of its failings and recreate the imagined purity of a community of perfect beings. He observes that variations on the theme go as far back as the poet Hesiod in 700 B.C. It represents a longing for a return to a pre-civilized existence and to escape from a rule-based social system. As such, it is a protest by the civilized against civilization itself. It It is a desire that derives from a fundamental misinterpretation of the object of its dissent. Thornton writes:
By denigrating Western civilization—the imperfect but still best hope for controlling humanity’s penchant for evil and for providing the greatest freedom for the greatest number of people—the myth of the noble savage nurtures the false hope that human perfection and freedom are possible without civilization.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 1, on page 41
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com