The 'fabrication' of Aboriginal history

Repudiating the past
John Quiggin

As with many others on the left of Australian politics, my first encounter with Keith Windschuttle came with his book Unemployment. The book presented a fairly standard left/Marxist account of the causes and effects of unemployment. Its most notable contribution was not the analysis of unemployment as such, but its careful dissection of the media-driven hysteria about 'dole bludgers'. Windschuttle's analysis of right-wing bias in the media was developed further in his 1984 book The Media.

Obviously, the notion of bias implies that there is some criterion of an objective search for truth, against which bias can be measured. Precisely this claim was rejected by the postmodernists who came to dominate large segments of academic life in the 1980s, following widespread disillusionment with the variants of Marxism (notably Althusser's ultratheoretical Stalinism) that had previously held currency in the same circles.

It was not surprising, therefore, that Windschuttle should attack the postmodernist domination of fields like history in his 1994 The Killing of History. It was also not particularly surprising that in doing so he should gain the applause of the many conservatives who opposed postmodernism, either on the basis of an old-fashioned methodological commitment to objective truth or under the wholly mistaken impression that postmodernism represented a threat, rather than a capitulation, to the supremacy of capitalism. What was harder to predict was that Windschuttle himself would abandon his previous political position and swing to the far-right, embracing an amalgam of views ,including economic rationalism, political Christianity and the cultural superiority of the West.

There were, to be sure, warning signs in The Killing of History. Even readers sympathetic to the general thesis found it to be taken to an unsustainable extreme. Not content with attacking the likes of Foucault and Derrida, he denounced Thomas Kuhn and even Karl Popper (the most prescriptive writer on scientific methodology of modern times) as mushy relativists. His implied viewpoint, based on the work of David Stove, seems to be one in which truth can be directly apprehended without any problem of reliance on fallible observational theories. This position is obviously untenable and leads straight to absurdities such as Stove's defence, reproduced on Windschuttle's website, of the crank pseudoscientist Immanuel Velikovsky (author of Worlds in Collision, among many others).

Applied to history, Windschuttle's version of Stove is that truth can be ascertained directly from documentary evidence - a claim that was discredited in the Middle Ages when the famous "Donation of Constantine" was found to be a fake. As any Popperian would point out, documents are nothing without an 'observational theory' that explains how to infer historical reality from potentially unreliable sources. Of course, even Windschuttle admits that some documents are untrustworthy (for example, the writings of his opponents), but apparently right-thinking people such as himself are gifted with a special insight that enables him to dispense with the fallibilism of 'irrationalists" like Popper, and to go straight to the truth. Most importantly, Windschuttle's model enables him to disregard oral evidence, even from eyewitnesses, thereby ruling out of court almost the whole of the Aboriginal side of Australian history.

At this point, the story becomes somewhat murky. To apply the words of the Declaration of Independence, when someone separates themselves from the political affiliations of a lifetime, "a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation." As far as I can determine Windschuttle has offered nothing of the kind. In the last few years, for example, he has written very critically of the state of 'media studies' in Australia, but has not cited his own work prior to the 1990s, leaving it open to doubt whether or not he repudiates or affirms it.

In any case, by the late 1990s, Windschuttle was firmly on the political right. In 2001 his private press (MacLeay Press) published Exasperating Calculators, by William Coleman and Alf Hagger. Although presented as a defence of Australian economists against the hysteria surrounding the notion of 'economic rationalism', the book is better described as a hatchet-job, not only on the opponents of economic rationalism within the economics profession, but on all those who failed to adhere the rationalist line with sufficient exactness and vigour. A particularly noteworthy feature of Coleman and Hagger's book is its nitpicking focus on the errors of opponents (right down to misspelling of proper names), combined with the slipshod and dishonest nature of their own work (including, inevitably, misspelt proper names). [Disclosure: I was among the many economists attacked in this book, and responded with a critical review].

In all these respects, Exasperating Calculators is a fitting precursor for Windschuttle's attack on the 'fabrication' of Aboriginal history. Windschuttle's basic method is a painstaking search for erroneous footnotes, bogus quotes and so on. Although this 'battle of the footnotes' is still being fought out, it may be worth summarising the current state of play before moving on to more serious issues. In the case of Henry Reynolds, a detailed and openly hostile examination produced a single misinterpreted quote, which Reynolds promptly acknowledged. Against this, Windschuttle himself has been nailed for his baseless claim that Reynolds had reversed himself on the applicability of the term 'genocide' to Tasmanian Aborigines, a far more serious error.

Windschuttle has pointed out some more serious problems in the work of Lyndall Ryan, showing that some claims made in her work are not backed up by the evidence she cites. However, in the process of doing so, Windschuttle has effectively misquoted Ryan himself, running two paragraphs together and shifting the associated footnotes in a way that makes Ryan appear deliberately dishonest. Ryan has been at something of a disadvantage so far, being forced to defend work she published more than twenty years ago, and her initial approach was less than convincing. In a piece published in the Australian she appeared, at least to readers unfamiliar with the nuances of historical debate, to take refuge in postmodernist notion of multiple truths, More recently, however, she has announced her intention to re-examine her sources and state more clearly the basis for her estimates of Aboriginal deaths in the Tasmanian conflict. This should clarify at least some of the outstanding issues.

While scoring some modest hits against his opponents, Windschuttle has done immense damage to his own reputation. The fact that he has repudiated his leftist past goes without saying. What is more striking is the extent to which Windschuttle's current work goes against the arguments he put forward in The Killing of History. The key villains Windschuttle assailed then were postmodernist theories in which truth was culturally relative, and 'postcolonial' history in which truth was subordinate to the pragmatic needs of progressive political struggle. In The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Windschuttle has embraced cultural relativism and political pragmatism, merely inverting the political affiliations.

Even sympathetic reviewers have noted that, far from being devoted to objective truth, Windschuttle has presented a polemical defence of an extreme position, ignoring or downplaying evidence that contradicts his case for the defence of British settlers in Australia. Although he frequently presents this work as a correction of the radical historians who have held sway for the last thirty years, in more candid moments he admits that he is seeking to overturn a view of Tasmanian history that became dominant at the time of which he is writing and has remained so ever since. Even the sanitised Australian history of my youth included the story of the Tasmanian guerilla war and the Black Line set up in a futile attempt to round up its survivors.

To achieve his goal, Windschuttle uses the theory of cultural relativism in a form extreme enough to give pause to the most devoted adherent of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines thought. As conservative anthropologist Ron Brunton noted in his Courier-Mail review,

Windschuttle] derides the suggestion that Tasmanian Aborigines might act with "humanity and compassion" because such notions were "literally unthinkable" to them [because their language had no words for these concepts]. This baseless claim not only displays the cultural relativism that Windschuttle otherwise scorns, it also goes against significant evidence that was available to him.

Windschuttle is not consistent in this however. While denying the Tasmanians the basic concepts of humanity and the defence of their native land on linguistic grounds, he is perfectly happy to accuse them of being responsible for their own extinction by virtue of their willingness to 'prostitute their women', a concept that would surely be hard to frame in a society with no experience of money or commerce (leaving aside the well-documented and widespread incidence of rape). The word 'racist' has become taboo in Australian intellectual debates, but I find it difficult to think of an alternative characterisation of Windschuttle's version of cultural relativism.

While Windschuttle does not generally link his work to contemporary political debates, his cheer squad, centred around Quadrant magazine, is only too happy to do so. Ever since the appointment of Paddy McGuinness as editor, Quadrant has been a vivid illustration of the theory that truth is whatever happens to be politically convenient. Not surprisingly Windschuttle's work has been embraced with glee, and Quadrant itself has published even more slipshod and incompetent work in the same vein.

I am always puzzled by the ease with which some people can repudiate their own past views while maintaining a dogmatic conviction of the infallible correctness of their current beliefs. Keith Windschuttle is, regrettably, an extreme instance of this phenomenon.

John Quiggin is Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow, based in the School of Economics in the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Queensland. Visit his blogspot, providing commentary on Australian & world events from a social-democratic perspective.

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