History Wars (August Review of Books, Part 2)


Early day gardiya bin really cruel la black fella. My mother bin little girl when her mum, her mum sister, her father bin get killed right in front of her. The read and write mob the one bin doing all the killing. They never write down what they did. We don’t read and write but we hear about what bin happen before from our mother and father and we still got it in our mind. We never talk to gardiya about this cruel thing because people bin still frightened. If they say anything they might get killed themself. — Peggy Patrick, 27 March 2003

Given all the news about the “history summit” and the “history wars” this month, I thought I’d spend a little time reading about the controversy, as well as reading some history. The “wars,” conducted largely in the press in recent years, are a mostly a series of attacks by neo-conservatives, embodied by Keith Windschuttle and emboldened by their American counterparts’ success in the last decade, on historians (the eminent Henry Reynolds perhaps the best known) who have attempted to broaden the scope of the national story to include “subaltern histories,” especially that of Aboriginal peoples. The “summit” was a meeting held in Canberra on August 17, through which the Howard government is proposing the re-instatement of history as a secondary school subject, replacing the current teaching of Australian history as part of a thematically oriented social studies course. (Some references to recent articles in the press that provide context are listed at the end of this post.) My reading started with a recently published book received by my library over the summer, Bain Attwood’s Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History (Allen & Unwin, 2005). In three parts, aptly titled “Past,” “Present,” and “Future,” Attwood takes on changes in the writing of history by academics in recent decades, an analysis of Keith Windschuttle’s historiography, and a proposal for the writing of meaningful history given the lessons demonstrated in the first two parts of the book.

Attwood begins with a brief look at recent Australian history, in particular the difference between Keating’s embrace of Australia’s place in the Asian hemisphere rather than in the remnants of the British Empire, and the Howard government’s rejection of that vision, with its appeal to a point of view that embraces the Anglophile tradition over Asian political and economic alignments. Having thus set a particularly Australian stage, Attwood charts changes in the practice of academic history. The most dramatic of these can be characterized as a broadening of the scope of historiography, a partial eclipse of the “great man” school that identifies history with the actions of powerful political leaders and large-scale economic factors. Instead, the late twentieth century, with vastly increased literacy and the rise of a relatively well educated and leisured population, saw what Attwood calls the democratization of history: the inclusion of the stories of “ordinary people,” often through the medium of oral history with its recognition of the contribution of memory rather than a strict reliance on written records.

One result of this change in historiography is the inclusion in the written record, academic and popular, of what had been marginalized communities–women, the poor, gays and lesbians, and, to the point of this book, Australia’s indigenous population. There are multiple implications to this shift, apart from the obvious change in the content of the stories reconstructed and told. One is that the raw materials of the historian have changed: history is no longer created solely out of official records, or even more significantly, written records. One key element of the history wars is thus not simply what is written about, or whether Australian history is a story of shame or glory. It is the redefinition of what can he used to create history, for as Attwood points out repeatedly, history is always written in the present, and is necessarily distanced in time from its subject matter. Oral history, or memory, has traditionally been denigrated as essentially unverifiable and subjective. This has led directly to the exclusion of the indigenous point of view from official history–and on supposedly “objective” grounds. But Attwood goes on to make the point that the supposedly impartial written documents which are used to reconstruct the past can in themselves be suspect. In the context of writing settlement history in Australia, historians often rely on letters, diaries, and official reports in which events that were at the time considered shameful were suppressed, softened, or euphemized. The quotation from Peggy Patrick above illustrates two aspects of these problems: first, the lack of written records from the Aboriginal point of view relating to Mistake Creek; and second, ironically, the deliberate suppression of evidence, here in the self-imposed form of Aboriginal fear and silence.

Finally, and most significantly, Attwood makes the point that much modern history (that is, history of the last two centuries in particular) is written in support of nation building and political legitimization. Far from being impartial, history can be and often is written to serve particular ends. In the chronicles of struggle, history has conventionally belonged to the victor. In recent decades, the attempt to tell Australian and Aboriginal history form the point of view of the losers has taken up the challenge of writing social history without the great men, or at least without their perspective dominant. It is this new writing of history that Geoffrey Blainey has attempted to discredit with the phrase “black armband history.” Likewise, opposition to these alternative histories underlies, in my estimation, much of the Howard government’s attempts to re-introduce “History” into the curriculum.

The second part of Attwood’s book tackles Keith Windschuttle and The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (Macleay Press, 2002) at some length. It is not by any means the extensive, critical rebuttal found in Whitewash: on Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History (Black Inc. Agenda, 2003), edited by Robert Manne and featuring essays by many of the historians whose work Windschuttle attacks. (Whitewash is also the source of the quotation from Peggy Patrick with which I opened this essay.) Attwood looks at Windschuttle’s credentials as an academic historian–they are nearly non-existent–and finds Windschuttle better characterized as a journalist and “Howard intellectual.” Among the minor facts this examination revealed to me is that Macleay Press is run by Windschuttle himself, out of Macleay College, where Windschuttle taught during the 1970s; the College itself was founded by Windschuttle’s wife. (As a blogger, I can’t cast stones too hard at the notion of vanity publishing; on the other hand, George Bush hasn’t appointed me to the board of the Public Broadcasting Corporation lately.)

Attwood’s examination of Windschuttle’s arguments and methodology first takes up the question of “genocide” as an example of how Windschuttle attempts to discredit his self-proclaimed opponents’ telling of history. Fabrication contains a great deal of quibbling about the definition of genocide, denigrating comparisons of the magnitude of Aboriginal loss of life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with European Jewry’s decimation in the twentieth, and the ultimate attempt to suggest that any author who accuses the colonizers of genocide has destroyed all hope of further credibility. This boils down to a situation much like the current debate in the United States over whether the violence in Iraq in recent months constitutes a civil war. Somehow, the Pentagon seems to believe that it can discredit many who decry the loss of life, the daily violence, and the threat of further destabilization in the Middle East by pointing out that those critics misunderstand exactly what constitutes a civil war.

Even more compelling, though, is Attwood’s examination of how Windschuttle’s linguistic caviling actually misrepresents the historians he is attacking, or worse, how he actually invents the misrepresentations he accuses them of advancing. Windschuttle has problems with “war” much as he does with genocide, and in this regard is especially critical of the “black-armband” historians and their supposed emphasis on massacres at the frontier. 

Except it turns out that it is Windschuttle who is obsessed with massacres, and not Henry Reynolds, and not Lyndall Ryan. To rebut Windschuttle’s claims about Ryan’s The Aboriginal Tasmanians (University of Queensland Press, 1981) in this regard, Attwood takes count of Ryan’s references to killings (not even “massacres”) and finds that Windschuttle grossly exaggerates the amount of space Ryan devotes to the subject. “Windschuttle gives the impression that Ryan is doing ‘massacre history’, but it is actuallyhe who is creating massacre stories.” When he examines Reynolds’ work, Attwood discovers that

Over twenty years ago now, Reynolds cautioned against an ‘overemphasis on the significance of massacres’, arguing that this ‘tends to throw support behind the idea that the blacks were helpless victims of white attack;’ this assessment, he noted, ran ‘easily along well worn channels of historical interpretation’ and parodied ‘the Aboriginal role in frontier conflict’. He extended this argument in Fate of a Free People: ‘There is a tendency among writers sympathetic to the Aborigines to exaggerate the numbers killed in order to emphasise the brutality of the colonial encounter’. In other words, Reynolds anticipated–indeed he articulated–the very argument that Windschuttle now presents as his very own (p 111).

These first two sections of Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History are an excellent introduction to the general reader about the problems of writing history, as well as a critique of the agenda of the Howard intellectuals, best exemplified in the person of Keith Windschuttle. Although there are times when Attwood’s argument threatens to descend into personal attack and fits of pique, I remain sympathetic to his outlook even when he is in danger of losing his objectivity. My own encounters with Windschuttle’s work have been, I admit, largely second-hand. I have tried to read both The Fabrication and The White Australia Policy (Macleay Press, 2004), Windschuttle’s attempt to prove that recent historians are pernicious in their portrayal of that policy as racist. Frankly, in each case, I gave up. Sometimes life is too short to read bad books. This is especially true of books which offer no constructive point of view: Windschuttle is not interested in making sense of events in the past, or even discovering what they were. He is interested only in tearing down the arguments–usually by a employing ahighly selective choice of facts and overlooking those that don’t conform to his intellectual prejudices–of men and women who are engaged in the effort of discovering the past. He is an ideologue whose chief complaint is that scholars with whom he disagrees are ideologues. 

The final chapters of Attwood’s book may have less appeal to the general reader in that they are the author’s attempt to discern new ways of writing history, or in Attwood’s words, to answer the questions of “how can and should historical difference be handled…how can a nation’s peoples best negotiate their different historical narratives about the past” (p. 184). He offers a critique of the work of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, whose project for a “shared history” he finds naive. In the end, Attwood argues that as long as multiple cultural traditions exist within a country, a single shared view of history is unattainable, for as he stated earlier, much of the work of history is devoted to establishing national identity. Australia’s pride in itself as a multicultural society demands a multi-threaded and sometimes conflicting historical narrative. It is only by accepting these multiple perspectives that such a society can hope to learn not simply about its past, but from its past.

It has been a long time (and the passage of many books) since I last read Henry Reynolds, so on completing Attwood’s monograph, I turned to Reynolds’ The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal resistance to the European invasion of Australia (Penguin, 1982, c.1981). No doubt the word “invasion” in the subtitle provoked Windschuttle endlessly, as would the quotation on the cover of my paperback copy: “Blackfellow by and by all gone, plenty shoot em, whitefellow — long time, plenty, plenty.” Once I got inside the book’s covers, however, my perception of the content changed significantly.

What was most striking about Reynold’s facts and hypotheses in this book is how much they read like anthropology more than history. This is true despite the fact that the far greater portion of the sources listed in the bibliographies supplied at the end of the book are either official government records from Great Britain and the colonies or contemporaneous (i.e. eighteenth and nineteenth century) accounts of contact between settlers and indigenes. In part this perception may be due to the thematic rather than chronological development of Reynold’s argument. However, it also results from his attempts to provide explanations of documented Aboriginal behavior on the frontier through recourse to Aboriginal traditions and ontologies.

The simplest and most illuminating example I can offer relates not to conflict (initially) but to accommodation. There is much evidence in print that the earliest encounters between Aborigines and Europeans in many parts of the continent were not hostile. In part this can be attributed to the mandates that men like Governor Phillip brought with them from England: to accommodate the natives and to establish friendly relations with them. But in part Reynolds ascribes it to the mind set of the natives themselves.

Even those with little more than a passing interest in Aboriginal culture understand the importance of land to the Aboriginal people, and the ties that groups have to specific tracts of country, validated through Dreaming stories and ancestral connections. Typically, a group will not intrude on another’s country without permission or invitation, and usually only in times when the entering group’s country is depleted of resources–food and water–on which it may survive. As seasons change and resource patterns shift, the population shifts with them, always taking into account the prerogatives of the holders of the territory they move into. This particular pattern of nomadism and the strict reciprocity that it implies inevitably shaped Aboriginal perceptions of the arrival of strangers with white skins.

In other words, Aboriginal people at first contact with white men must have assumed that their arrival represented only a temporary stay of residence. It would have been inconceivable to a group of people who were as tied to a particular stretch of country as the indigenous people were that another group would willingly abandon their homelands permanently to set up on another’s country. (This insight is not original to Reynolds: he quotes (p. 32) directly from George Grey’s 1841 Journals of Two Explorations of Discovery.) Trouble started when the realization began to steal upon the Aboriginal people that the white men were not showing signs of leaving. Relations got worse when notions of reciprocity were violated: when the white’s refusal to share their superabundance of meat on the hoof led to bloodshed. Reynolds suggests that, in fact, this refusal to share must have made the Europeans appear quite uncivilized to their indigenous hosts. And this, no doubt, is where Windschuttle and his ilk lose all patience.

For it is at this point that Reynolds’ narrative diverges from the anthropological and strays into the historical domain of nation building and myth-making. For employing the data of oral history–even if anecdotally recorded in print by an Englishman–and for daring to suggest that the civilizing principles of the Europeans might have be brutish (not even brutal), he earns the ire of the neo-conservatives. I find this ironic, for although I am writing (and probably read) from a decidedly partisan point of view myself, Reynold’s work aroused nowhere near the indignation and anger in me than the more straightforwardly historical story C. D. Rowley presents in The Destruction of Aboriginal Society did when I read it a month ago. And it is doubly ironic in that Windschuttle, in The Killing of History: how a discipline is being murdered by literary critics and social theorists (Macleay Press, 1994), held Rowley up as an example of the artistry of the historian who can allow his readers ” to see things from a new, unexpected and illuminating perspective” (quoted by A. Dirk Moses in “Revisionism and Denial,” in Whitewash, p. 362).

Of course, Windschuttle wrote that in 1994, more than adecade ago and before Howard came to power. Attwood documents (pp. 65-66) Windschuttle’s own shifting political allegiances, from radical New Left Marxist to Howard neo-con over the decades. And while it is no crime to alter one’s politics over the course of time, it is a shame that in the case of men like Windschuttle, the fact is that differing vantage points over time do not translate into tolerance with such difference. It is more distressing that is in the arena of journalism–and not academic scholarship–where these history wars are largely being fought these days, and without acknowledgment of Windschuttle’s own vagaries. Sadly, the reporting on the History Summit has largely bypassed the very kinds of issues that Attwood raises about the writing of history, and has been largely silent on the implications of a new curriculum for Aboriginal voices. Perhaps it’s early days yet and careful consideration will be given to all aspects of Australian history. I’m just not holding my breath while I wait. 

A selection of the recent press on the History Summit:

Albrechtsen, Janet. “Asking the Right questions.” The Australian, August 23, 2006.

Colvin, Mark. “PM convenes summit to discuss history teaching in schools.” ABC Online PM, August 17, 2006.

Flanagan, Mark. “Not just black and white.” The Age, September 5, 2006.

Koutsoukis, Jason. “Once upon a time…” The Age, August 5, 2006.

Lane, Terry. “History — or learning by numbers?” The Age, August 13, 2006.

Madigan, Michael. “Howard version fears.” Brisbane Courier-Mail, August 18, 2006.

Watt, Jarrod. “The past is not what it used to be.” ABC North Coast, August 4, 2006.

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