The Australian academic world can seem, at least to outsiders, a cosy place where anyone who ventures a dissenting opinion on a sensitive topic gets stomped on very quickly. Let’s update the saga of Associate Professor Andrew Fraser, which took an unexpected twist this week.
Fraser, you might recall, wrote to the Parramatta Sun last year about the settlement of Sudanese immigrants in the area, with the provocative claim that “experience practically everywhere in the world tells us that an expanding black population is a sure-fire recipe for increases in crime, violence and a wide range of other social problems”.
Fraser believes that, on average, black people have lower IQs than whites, while Asians have higher IQs.
Macquarie University banned him from teaching because of the letter, and Deakin University in Victoria subsequently directed its law journal not to publish an article by Fraser that it had had refereed and accepted. A Sudanese man complained about Fraser’s views to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, which announced two weeks ago that the professor had breached the Racial Discrimination Act.
Unless he apologises in a form acceptable to the complainant, he could face prosecution in the Federal Court. It’s a landmark decision in the history of Australian free speech.
On Wednesday, The Australian newspaper published a letter from six American and European professors, and two other scholars, protesting against the commission’s decision. They said: “Fraser has done no more than restate hypotheses offered for more than half a century by eminent psychologists and anthropologists at leading universities.” (That’s outside Australia, of course.)
Indeed, “There is an important and legitimate academic debate going on about race, intelligence and genetics.” (Not in Australia, mind you.)
Moreover, “It is a sad day when governments and universities once rooted in the traditions of British liberty muzzle academics and public figures from engaging in open discussion.”
I don’t have an opinion on Fraser’s views. Last year, when I interviewed him, he told me it was “hard to spot a white face” in Macquarie University’s library, or at Westfield Parramatta. My visits to both places suggest that the professor can’t count.
There are lots of academics with a flawed sense of proportion whose views I disagree with, yet I wouldn’t dream of suggesting the law be used to silence them. So what’s happening to Fraser is quite disturbing. Sure it’s rare, but maybe that’s only because these days it’s rare to hear an unusual view on a delicate subject coming from an academic.
The other great dissenter of the last few years has been Keith Windschuttle who, in his 2002 book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, challenged the widely held view that genocide had been practised by white people against the blacks in Tasmania. The abuse that Windschuttle has received from academics has been extraordinary.
In the latest issue of Quadrant magazine, Windschuttle has listed some of the personal attacks on him. An historian at Sydney University, Dirk Moses, wondered in 2001 if Windschuttle and two other dissenting writers “experience castration anxiety. That is, a fantasised danger to their genitals symbolised by the [traditional white] national ideal that makes them feel powerful and good about themselves”. This statement was published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Aboriginal History.
Moses has claimed elsewhere that Windschuttle was once a “fanatical communist”, while Professor Robert Manne, of Melbourne’s La Trobe University, has several times said he was a Pol Pot enthusiast. According to Windschuttle, both smears were invented.
Some critics have attacked the core of Windschuttle’s book by claiming that academic historians never described what happened to the indigenous Tasmanians as genocide. For instance, in Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History, published last year, Associate Professor Bain Attwood, of Monash University, wrote that Windschuttle’s “imputation that academic historians have compared the British colonisation of this country to Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews . . . is a figment of his imagination”.
This is the same Attwood who, in the 2000 collection Reconciliation, wrote: “The severe historical impact the various dimensions of colonisation have had upon Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders . . . can and should be called a holocaust.”
In 2003 in The Australian, Moses wrote: “No Australian historian contends there was an Australian holocaust.” Windschuttle points out that one of those who did actually contend this was Moses himself who, in 2000, in the Journal of Genocide Research, wrote: “Australia has had many genocides, perhaps more than any other country.”
Windschuttle and Fraser don’t have much in common except that they’re probably the two most prominent intellectuals to have challenged conventional wisdom in recent years. The attacks on them make you wonder how widespread low-level reprisals are for less prominent rebels, and whether others stay quiet from fear of suffering the same fate.
I don’t know if what Fraser says is true, yet its truth surely affects whether it is racist. But none of his critics seem to care. Macquarie University made no effort to argue the facts with him, nor did Deakin University. A statement by Fraser’s union speaks of racism, not the facts. In its letter to Fraser, the human rights commission doesn’t raise the issue of truth: what matters is that someone was offended.
We need less moralising, more facts.