On 'fabricating' history
History, politics and the philosophy of history
By Stuart Macintyre
In 1994 Keith Windschuttle published a strident polemic about The Killing of History. He suggested that the discipline and practice of history was suffering a potentially mortal attack from pernicious theorists who asserted that it was impossible to tell the truth about the past, who were hostile to the idea of an objective, knowable past.
He therefore laid out a series of summaries of the claims of these theorists - Todorov and semiotics, Levi-Strauss and structuralism, Foucault and poststructuralism, Derrida and deconstruction, Lyotard and postmodernism, Kuhn, Feyerabend and others on epistemological relativism, Hayden White on tropology - to show their lethal effects on historical knowledge.
The book also considered the work of some historians, and among them two Australians, Greg Dening and Inga Clendinnen, as well as an Australian cultural theorist, Paul Carter.
The subtitle of the book was 'How a discipline is being murdered by literary critics and social theorists'. Windschuttle saw this occurring in two ways: first, the theorists were writing their own bad history; and second, historians themselves - even very good ones - were capitulating to the virus and 'embracing assumptions that have the capacity to demolish everything they once stood for'. With much epistemological huffing and puffing, he claimed that the only proper method for historians was strict empirical inductionism: you had to work without preconceptions from the evidence.
"The first volume of what is planned as a series on The Fabrication of Aboriginal History pronounced that Henry Reynolds, along with a group of historians and archaeologists who have worked on culture contact in colonial Tasmania, are utterly mistaken about the fate of its Aborigines."
It is a strange polemic because the diagnosis - how history was being murdered by literary critics and social theorists - was belied by the close attention to some of these capitulators. Windschuttle disagrees with Inga Clendinnen's work on the Aztecs, but praises it; he rejects Greg Dening on Mr Bligh's Bad Language but makes it sound creative and challenging.
There are jibes and jests along the way about Parisian academic fashion houses, and there are allusions to Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball and Dinesh D'Souza, for this a contribution to the offensive against campus radicals, and the surrender to political correctness.
It's also a quirky book, full of personal digressions as Windschuttle reflects on his abandonment of the left. He is identified on the dustjacket as former lecturer in history, social policy, sociology and media studies. He recalls his own education as a historian at Sydney in the 1960s and his good fortune to have been forced to read Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle, Maitland and Tocqueville.
He was indeed fortunate - each one is a superlative historian - though it is noticeable that he encountered them in a course on historical method, for they had disappeared from the curriculum of ancient history, British, European and American history, for reasons to which I shall return.
He recollects the shortcomings of Australian history as it was written and taught at that time. If ever there was an academic scene that deserved the postcolonial term Eurocentric, he writes, it was this historiography, for it confined Aborigines to the prefatory passages and allowed them to disappear in 1788. He praises Charles Rowley, whose account of The Destruction of Aboriginal Society in 1970 showed (and I quote him) that 'what most people had assumed to have been small, isolated outbreaks of violence against blacks, coupled with some sporadic, pathetic gestures at welfare, actually formed a great unbroken arch of systematic brutality, dispossession and incarceration stretching from the late eighteenth century to the twentieth'.
He goes on to say that Rowley composed his account primarily from government records and then, a decade later, Henry Reynolds showed it was 'possible to use Aboriginal voices to tell the story'. That was a conspicuous example of good history for Windschuttle in 1994.
Late last year he offered a strikingly different assessment. The first volume of what is planned as a series on The Fabrication of Aboriginal History pronounced that Henry Reynolds, along with a group of historians and archaeologists who have worked on culture contact in colonial Tasmania, are utterly mistaken about the fate of its Aborigines.