In the right corner ...
Catherine Keenan

The two teams took to the stage for more than just another debate. This was the latest battle in a turf war that has been going on for years. It was about the central issue in history studies today, though a high-profile court case and a bankrupt Holocaust denier proved it is not just an academic problem. This is because what is at stake is nothing less than truth itself: what it is, and how we might (or might not) get access to it. As the chair wryly told the hundreds of assembled spectators at The Great Debate About History, held at the University of NSW in August, this was going to be a fight between the forces of good and evil.

But which side was good and which was evil? That depends on your point of view. With admirable succinctness, the debate neatly articulated the two principal positions in this ongoing stoush that continues to cause ructions around the world.

In the blue corner were the objective historians, the conservatives. Their position is easy to understand, for they believe the seemingly commonsense proposition that history aims to uncover the truth about the past. That's what historians have tried to do for more than 2000 years, and that's what this team tries to do now. They don't always succeed, of course, but they keep on trying: studiously, dispassionately, pedantically. The blue team were all men, they were all authoritatively aged, and they all wore jackets and ties.

In the red corner were the postmodernists, generally thought of as the lefties. They were younger, they had a woman on their side, and they wore polo necks. They are a far hipper, more slippery bunch, and they argue that things are not as simple as the objective historians would like to think. They say there is no such thing as the objective truth. While they will usually concede that we can know certain facts about the past, they argue that as soon as we weave those facts into a story, into a history, we enter the realm of subjectivity. That's because everyone chooses their facts differently.

It's a complicated argument, but think of a couple going through a divorce. Ask them to describe their marriage, and each one will paint a radically different picture. According to the objective historians, we should be able to decide between the two competing versions by weighing up the evidence, and to a certain extent we can. But that doesn't mean we can always get to the point of saying that one version is wholly right while the other is wholly wrong. Postmodernists argue that because the way we see the past depends on our point of view in the present, both the husband and the wife are telling their own form of the truth. Historical truth is not singular: there are always multiple, subjective, and equally valid ways of looking at the past.

But this leads to a kind of moral relativism, an unforgivable "anything goes" attitude, according to the blue team. They kicked off the debate by sending in their most impressive speaker. Professor Richard J. Evans is objective history's heavyweight champion of the world. He is a don at Cambridge University, an expert on modern Germany, and the author of In Defence of History, a well-received book about the importance of maintaining the criterion of objectivity. He also helped drag this debate about history out of the academy and into the courtroom, when he was appointed the expert witness in the David Irving libel trial.

The fascist historian David Irving has long been known as an anti-Semite (he has been refused an Australian visa four times). But in her book on Holocaust deniers, historian Deborah Lipstadt accused him of systematically manipulating the historical evidence about the Holocaust to make the Nazis look better. Irving sued her for libel, and so began one of the more celebrated British trials in recent years.

Lipstadt's publisher, Penguin Books, hired Evans to prove their claims, because he is, in the words of one observer at the trial, "the pedant's pedant". There is a bulldog-like aspect to him, and it was with a bulldog's tenacity that he checked Irving's sources, double-checked his quotes, and dug out those bits of evidence he had overlooked. He compiled a meticulous 740-page report, which the judge ruled did indeed prove that Irving was an active Holocaust denier. Irving had previously enjoyed a modicum of respect as a historian, but Evans demolished him, leaving him academically and, later, financially bankrupt. Evans was in bulldog mode again for this debate. He is an agile, sophisticated thinker, and he brought out all his best moves, pointing out first the logical inconsistencies in the opposition's argument. For instance, how can they say there is no such thing as the objective truth: doesn't that statement itself purport to be an objective truth? Similarly, how can one say that all truth is relative isn't that a non-relative statement?

Then he momentarily wrong-footed them with a few concessions. He admitted that postmodernists are right to point out that there is always an element of doubt in history. But he added that just because we can't always get at the truth, doesn't mean truth doesn't exist. The other side, he claimed, suffer from a naive cynicism. They are too simple-minded to cope with the uncertainties that infect all human enterprises, and in their attempts to deal with this have inadvertently thrown the baby out with the bath water and declared objective history to be bunk.

In contrast, he argued that his legal victory over Irving was also a victory for objective history, because it proved that some versions of the past are better than others. It proved that with a little hard work (which, he has somewhat sniffily noted, many are not prepared to put in) it is possible to distinguish truth from falsehood. It was one of many body-blows to the opposition, swiftly followed up by his assertion that the postmodern idea of multiple histories only gives succour to men like Irving.

If they believe there are many, equally true versions of the past, then on what grounds can they discredit him? If they accept women's histories, and histories of oppressed peoples, as valid accounts of the past, then they must accept fascist histories too. For all their leftie posturing, Evans argued that postmodernists fall prey to a kind of political quietism that plays directly into the hands of the far Right.

Professor Stephen Garton, dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney, was the first to respond to these arguments, and he did so with a characteristic manoeuvre: he agreed with almost everything Evans had said. He agreed that there are facts, and that there is a lot of bad postmodern history around. He agreed too that some histories are better than others. Whereas Evans had fought by standing squarely in the ring, and punching his opponents repeatedly in the face, Garton chose to duck and weave. Urbane and relaxed, his slipperiest tactic was to claim that he wasn't even a postmodernist, but a post-structuralist.

He was referring to the loose collection of theories usually associated with such names as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes, whose thrust is that language does not simply mirror the world, but helps us construct it.

It sounds fairly dry, but Garton showed one reason why it has become so popular: sex. He won over the young people in the audience when he started talking about how the French historian of ideas, Foucault, used this idea as the basis for his The History of Sexuality. Before Foucault, people had tended to assume that sex was ahistorical, that we like birds and bees had been doing it in the same way since time immemorial. But Foucault argued that in ancient Greece, for instance, sex was not divided into gay and straight, but active and passive. It didn't matter whether a man had sex with another man or a woman, it only mattered how he did it, and this obviously had an enormous impact on people's sex lives.

Foucault showed that sexuality was a historically inflected activity, and consequently just as worthy of study as politics or wars. He is partly responsible for the recent rush of history books on everything from manners to food, medicine to insanity. While objective historians accuse Foucault of killing off the historical project, of making access to the truth about the past a theoretical impossibility, it is also true that he has done much to revitalise the discipline by expanding its borders, and increasing its popularity.

From the moment Keith Windschuttle walked up to the podium, the debate took a turn for the belligerent. The outspoken historian and commentator, author of The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past, is perhaps best known for his gloves-off battle with Henry Reynolds over frontier history, and his claim that relations between Aborigines and white settlers were largely peaceful. Windschuttle was the attack dog of the team, and he raised the hackles of his opponents by first conflating postmodernism and cultural studies (Garton rolled his eyes, and buried his head in his hands).

He also refused to accept Garton's moderate position, pinning the opposition down to the more radical postmodern claims that there is no such thing as truth at all, that history is no different to fiction, and that reality is just a construct of our minds. He then proceeded to rip apart this straw-man opponent, repeating many of Evans's arguments, and taking particular exception to the postmodernist claim that history is always political. Windschuttle believes passionately that historians can detach themselves from their own biases and prejudices, and that the attempt to do this and write objective histories that are independent of the prevailing religious or political systems is one of the great achievements of Western civilisation.

It was not the most nuanced argument, but it ratcheted up the emotional content of the debate (this is often an emotional contest). When Dr Dirk Moses, of the University of Sydney, stood up to respond, he was ropeable and no longer content to weave and feint: he was going in to fight dirty. He began by calling Windschuttle less masterly than Evans, and thanking him for providing such a soft target for his team. He also made a joke about using the same laptop as Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City, and once again you could feel the young audience siding with him (no small matter when departmental funding is dependent on course numbers). Moses wore little, round glasses, and a tweed jacket, but you sensed he was wearing them ironically.

Moses's main point was that Windschuttle's beloved "objective" history (the inverted commas mimed with flexing fingers) was itself political. In his account of frontier history, for example, Windschuttle refuses to accept as evidence Aboriginal oral lore. Following the traditional rules of objective history, he accepts only eyewitness testimony, preferably written down at that time. But as Moses argued, this will by definition come only from literate white people, and will therefore be biased in their favour: little wonder, then, that Windschuttle finds Aborigines were not systemically massacred. What Windschuttle calls objective history, Moses said was actually deeply political.

When the third and final speaker for the blue team, Dr Behan McCullagh, took to the stage after lunch, tempers had calmed down considerably. The author of The Truth of History, and lecturer at La Trobe University, took up the most conciliatory position so far. Harking back to Evans's opening comments, he noted that objective historians have already taken on board many of the insights of postmodernism. He said postmodernism was right to point out how much our culture and political beliefs influence our accounts of the past, and he also conceded that historical descriptions are always inadequate, and can never conjure up the true horror of the Holocaust, for instance.

But his point was that neither of these things rendered history invalid. He introduced the notion of pragmatism, a kind of Third Way to claim a middle ground between absolute and relative truth. He argued that while a historical account may not be absolutely true, it can still be credible for certain practical purposes. Truth, in other words, does not have to be an all-or-nothing thing.

Associate Professor Joy Damousi, of the University of Melbourne, was the last to speak, but she didn't respond to these arguments. The only woman in the debate took the broader view, reminding everyone that postmodernism itself has a history, and has come about for good reasons. She also argued that an age-old faith in the goals of objectivity and rationality had promised that history would be a story of continual progress, of ever greater freedoms and ever greater advances. But two world wars and the invention of nuclear weapons have seriously dented that faith, and we no longer seem to be going forwards.

The notion of objectivity has been further undermined by the rise of the women's movement, and the end of colonialism, which showed that what we called progress was often the progress of dead, white males, made at the expense of women and non-whites. Similarly, objective history was often exclusively the history of these dead white men, which served to obscure and invalidate the often radically different experiences of women and native populations. All this has taught us, said Damousi, is that when someone says something is "true", the question should be: "Who's truth are we talking about?"

All history is subjective, she grandly concluded, but that's not a bad thing. Rather, it is beneficial to have competing accounts of, say, the colonisation of Australia, for it is only when we bring together the conflicting histories of white women, white men, and Aboriginal men and women, that we can even hope to get a fuller picture of what went on.

It was a salient point for the debate to end on, for it suggested that the two sides were not that far apart after all. Another of the paradoxes of the postmodern position is that the denial of objective truth is part of a search for better, more accurate ways of representing the past.

Question time only reinforced this similarity between the teams, as Moses, his temper now calmed, pointed out that both sides agree that any history is bound by the facts, just as both sides agree that any history involves an element of interpretation. The point of contention is simply one of degree: what are the implications of this doubt?

But the most bitter battles, especially in academia, have often been over the smallest differences, and this is a debate that will continue for a good few years yet. There was no knock-out winner this time around, and even a points decision would be hard to call. While the postmodern argument is generally thought to be on the wane, it has already substantially altered the way we do history, and continues to exert a strong pull on the many high school students in the audience.

The fight for history isn't over yet.

Catherine Keenan writes for the Sydney Morning Herald, where this article originally appeared in Spectrum magazine on Saturday 17 September 2002. Republished with kind permission. Photo/graphics by Mark Brown, courtesy of the School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia.