The 250th anniversary of James Cook’s landing at Botany Bay, and the opening up of Australia to European colonists, has let loose a veritable deluge of postcolonial journalism.
One would imagine that the same academics who are outraged by their colonist ancestors’ settlement of Oceania, conflict with indigenous peoples, and exploitation of native women would be outraged by modern colonists’ settlement of Europe, conflict with indigenous peoples, and exploitation of native women. Why is colonisation wrong in the former case and right in the latter? After all, European settlers were coming from an overcrowded continent with limited economic opportunities. Both 19th-century Europeans and 21st-century Middle Easterners and Africans are clearly engaged in settler colonialism, having no intention in most cases of returning to the homeland.
The contradiction exposes the self-hatred and subconscious racism of certain strains of marxist, postcolonial thought. A key position advanced is not only that Europeans are fundamentally bad, but bizarrely that they also have greater moral capacity and hence responsibility: Europeans are portrayed as depraved adults, the ‘Others’ as virtuous children. By reducing the ‘Others’ to the status of perpetual victims, the putative recipients of endless intervention on their behalf, the Left denies the ‘Other’ agency, a fact that American conservatives such as Thomas Sowell and Candace Owens have pointed out.
On the other hand, there is equally a fundamental contradiction in the thinking of the Right about the two events.
Botany Bay cannot be this glorious moment when European civilisation reached Australasian shores, while modern economic migration to Europe is the augur of the pernicious destruction of indigenous Europeans. “The migrants coming from North Africa and the Middle East are rapefugees and terrorists!” howls the Right. Tell me, how else would 18th-century aboriginals have seen the earliest European colonists?! Has the arrival of European settlers really ‘culturally enriched’ and prospered native Australians?
Schools of Thought
In modern discourse, we can discern seven broad schools of thought about the claims and prerogatives of nations and people groups, starting with the two described above:
- Internalised Oppression: Beloved by marxist and postcolonial scribblers, this school of thought basically holds that “my people” are bad while the “others” are good, and therefore that one should favour other people groups’ claims as regards to what was historically one’s own people’s land, and ideally throw in some reparations. The same scholars who berate marginalised people groups for “internalised oppression”, typically exhibit the same self-hatred towards their own culture. A marginal viewpoint, but common on campus.
- Ethnic Nationalism: This school of thought basically views “my people” as superior and therefore obligated to spread itself and its culture abroad at the expense of indigenous peoples and their prior claims and prerogatives. It can lead to ethnic chauvinism, imperialism, irredentism, ethnic replacement, subjection of indigenous peoples and even genocide.
- Indigenism: Consistent promotion of the claims of the indigenous peoples. Indigenism does not claim that “my people” are better, but that “no one comes from nowhere”, and that the settlement rights of settlers are contingent while those of indigenous people are absolute. It also claims that a diversity of cultures is a fundamental human good and deserves to be defended. Indigenism often underlies separatist movements and campaigns for indigenous people’s rights, but is a hugely common cultural attitude among tribal peoples.
- Nativism: The view that the claims of peoples living longer in a particular land supercede those of more recent arrivals. In contrast to indigenism, nativism accepts the fact that present claims can be built on historic migration, colonisation or conquest.
- Universalism: This school of thought views race and ethnicity as categories to be transcended, seeing little use for them in the modern world. Applied consistently, it denies any historical claims, prerogatives or difference based on race and ethnicity, and accepts only formal categories such as citizenship and residency as being valid. Universalists are fine with borders and boundaries, but for pragmatic reasons, such as the localisation of obligation and responsibility, rather than to protect the rights of particular people groups.
- Globalism: This school of thought does not deny race and ethnicity as categories, but advocates for free and unrestrained migration with the explicit end goal of undermining the nation-state and increasing global governance. It thereby denies to indigenous peoples any right to defend their autonomy, identity and culture, although it is happy with small localised indigenous rights movements which further its broader aims. Worse, globalism invariably leans towards the dangerous concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few, and as Kant put it, will invariably lead to tyranny.
- The Divine Economy: Nations are established by God, and are therefore natural entities, and as such should exercise self-determination. It is good for nations to live at peace, but a nation that stops honouring God and practising justice and righteousness may find itself being invaded, subjugated or conquered. Restoration accompanies repentance. It is God’s to give and take away.
These are some consistent ways of thinking about the status and prerogatives of nations and people groups.
The reality is that many commentators on these topics are not consistent, and do not try to be so, perhaps out of fear of where their logic might lead. Many choose particular ends, which they desire, and argue back from that point. Some will vary their underlying assumptions depending on the particular identity in question.
Internalised oppression and ethnic nationalism are forms of essentialism. The idea that one people or nation is fundamentally superior or inferior to another is not only wrong, but it has also inspired some of the worst crimes of the twentieth century.
Indigenism, by contrast, sees the autonomy and self-determination of all peoples as important. It views cultural diversity as a fundamental human good, and argues that strong boundaries make good neighbours. It recognises that nation-states are vital to protecting individual indigenous cultures, which have little chance of prospering or being viable outside of their homeland.
Universalism is hugely popular at present on the intellectual Right, with Australian Senator Amanda Stoker being a notable proponent of this view. Most libertarian, centrist and centre-right politicians, and some left-wing ones, in Australia, the UK, US and Canada today would probably subscribe to some form of universalism. A key problem with it is that once a particular nation’s culture is no longer permitted to form the basis of the nation-state, ideology will take its place, ideology whose artificiality and arbitrariness cannot help but undermine the long-term integrity of the state. British politicians will frequently talk about the importance of promoting British values, but the values in question are increasingly ideological constructs, rather than emanating from centuries-old cultural traditions.
The Divine Economy is the antidote to ethnic chauvinism. Those who see the Divine Economy in relations between peoples recognise that a people’s security is contingent upon their righteousness and standing before God, and should thus never be taken for granted. Likewise, the imperial people may be being used as an instrument of God’s judgement.
The easiest point to make in modern identity politics is that your opponent is being contradictory. A little more rigour in thinking about these issues might perhaps lead to a dialling back of the rhetorical thermometer.