Creating people's geographies
What really leapt out in this Guardian piece from Geoffrey Robertson is that the English Fabian Socialists, almost always looked up to by many of us in the labour movement and culturally lionised, were eugenicists who advocated the assimilation or “humane eradication” of what they saw as “lesser races”. It is surprising that George Bernard Shaw, who I otherwise quite like as a playwright and political commentator from that era, is among this group that includes Sydney and Beatrice Webb, Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence and others. Even making allowances for the prevalent modes of thought of the time in which they lived, this is a revelation. As late as 1934, a British Department of Health report recommended compulsory sterilisation of the “feeble-minded’, as Robertson points out. Ironically, he adds that it was opposition from Labour MPs that quashed the recommendation, “who feared that working-class people would be the real victims of the Fabian intelligentsia.”
This reminds me why I support causes that may be labelled ‘socialist’—a misnomer in some respects—but I now abjure the labels socialist, Marxist or communist. In a too-little acknowledged historical fact, the 1917 Russian Revolution was dominated by Jewish middle class intellectuals who were getting back at their persecution by Gentiles, tribalism dressed up as universalism. These “communists” were directly responsible for perpetrating the Holodomor famine-genocide which exceeds the numbers killed in the European Holocaust. Wither the Holocaust museums to the Holodomor? Israeli society was also called socialist in the early days of the state, with its kibbutzim. The left-right political designations are becoming more and more oblique.
Destroying a whole people is not the way to create a ‘superior society’, and we are still feeling the ripples of this ideological inhumanity today, justifying the ripping of people from their land and their families. Chagos Islands, anyone? Not to mention genocide and ethnic cleansing elsewhere. Saying sorry is not a ‘white bourgeois indulgence’, it is about coming to terms with the past in order to better steer the future. It is about intellectual honesty and integrity and respect for indigenous peoples. It is about justice, and reconciliation elevates all those who participate in it sincerely. It is not claimed that this is a substitute for concrete material actions, but a powerful first step. With respect to John Pilger, with whom I partly agree, let us remember to consider Aboriginal Australian views, particularly members of the Stolen Generation, as the best barometer on the matter, not simply privileged white views such as his (see Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson and others), however progressive; ‘progressive’ includes listening to the traditionally voiceless.
Geoffrey Robertson | Thursday February 14 2008
The historic apology offered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the “stolen generations” was a crucial step for Australia, as Richard Flanagan wrote on these pages this week. But it does not make amends for the role played by the British in the destruction and degradation of the Aboriginal race. Initially soldiers, convicts and settlers killed Aborigines as if they were animals threatening the crops. Later, in the 20th century, Fabian socialists provided the intellectual justification for the eugenics policy that led to the stolen generations scandal.
The British exterminated the entire tribe of Tasmanian Aborigines, leaving only 40 survivors who were herded off their land and placed on an offshore island gulag. The governor’s wife led the hunt for their skulls to decorate London mantelpieces. At least there was a parliamentary inquiry, which reported in 1836 that “not a single native now remains upon Van Dieman’s land … the adoption of any conduct, having for its avowed or secret object the extermination of the native race, could not fail to leave an indelible stain upon the British government”. That “indelible stain” was, a century later, termed “genocide”.
We castigate the Turks for pretending the Armenian genocide never took place, but we are apt to forget the Tasmanian genocide. Last year the National History Museum had to be taken to court to stop it experimenting on the skulls of victims.
Rudd’s apology was directed at the policy that produced the stolen generations – Aboriginal children, mainly girls, snatched from their mothers for “assimilation” into white society. Its intellectual origin was the English eugenics movement, which held that “feeble-mindedness” and other “degenerate” traits could be eliminated by social engineering measures such as compulsory sterilisation of the “unfit” and by “breeding out” what were described as “degenerate” racial traits.
AO Neville (played by Kenneth Branagh in the Phil Noyce film Rabbit-Proof Fence) held the title chief protector of Aborigines in Western Australia and was the leading proponent of the policy. He was an Englishman who, inspired by eugenics, took very young girls from Aboriginal settlements and had them trained for domestic service with white families, relying on miscegenation – and rape – to produce by the third generation an acceptable skin colour and a lack of any distinctive aboriginality. His aim was to “merge the blacks into our white community” so that “we could eventually forget that there ever were any Aborigines in Australia”.
Much as white Australians may castigate themselves today for their deluded assimilation efforts, it is necessary, as with every genocide, to sheet home responsibility to the intellectual authors of the policy. These were the Fabian socialist heroes who believed eugenics principles could be applied to produce a “superior” society. Sydney and Beatrice Webb, John Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell all supported this cause. George Bernard Shaw argued for humane extermination of “the sort of people who do not fit in”. Marie Stopes publicly pleaded for the sterilisation of the “hopelessly rotten and racially diseased”. Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence privately urged that the state should eradicate “imbeciles”. Their slogan was the vile aphorism of Oliver Wendell Holmes: “three generations of imbeciles are enough”.
Against this background, Neville’s “absorption” policy, adopted in 1937, was regarded as progressive. It was in line with modern thinking in the UK, where a Department of Health report had in 1934 recommended compulsory sterilisation of the “feeble-minded”, a class comprising “a quarter of a million mental defectives and a far larger number of the mentally subnormal”. It was not implemented, mainly because of opposition from Labour MPs, who feared working-class people would be the real victims of the Fabian intelligentsia.
Historical wrongs cannot be put right by belated apologies unless there has been a genuine attempt to understand – then remember and condemn – the thinking behind the policies that have had such appalling results. This is why we establish truth commissions, and why international courts now try the “intellectual authors” of widespread and systematic atrocities.
For that reason, the UK government should find a way to endorse the apology to Australian Aborigines, for whose sufferings Britain has been in part responsible – not only for the massacres and for the introduction of disease and alcohol that further ravaged the indigenous population, but by a much later and more insidious dose of eugenics theory. Every Holocaust Day we should remember the Tasmanians, and ask how it came to pass that the finest minds in the socialist pantheon were incapable of imagining the inhuman cruelty entailed by their plans for a Fabian utopia.
· Geoffrey Robertson is the author of Crimes against Humanity – The Struggle for Global Justice
This letter-writer captures my own sentiments about the act of saying sorry — that it is a sign of respect, not somehow reflecting ‘personal’ guilt:
Like the majority of other Australians, we are very pleased indeed that Howard in fact gone. 11 years of oppressive right wing rule was a little too much.
Imagine being a member of the oldest living continuous culture in the world. Imagine being “colonised” and having your culture systematically wiped out.
The word sorry is a sign of respect, a recognition of past doings. Not an admission of personal guilt. I am not personally guilty for what occured, but the government was.
Now it’s no longer being swept under the carpet. These atrocities are now accepted as real. Now they can grieve. Now they can beigin to recover.
I’m a white Australian, from convict stock, and I weeped yesterday, weeped with joy and sadness.
“Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings.”
Edward Said (1994)