Australian Culture Wars: Losing the Argument
We have been watching, with varying degrees of interest, what are being called The History Wars, after a book of the same name, produced by one of the combatants, Stuart Macintyre. Another book – edited by Robert Manne – attacks Keith Windschuttle's volume The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: and, for no extra charge, Windschuttle himself. Manne's collection is entitled Whitewash, and I take him to mean Windschuttle's research. But I think Windschuttle, in his answers to that Manne collection, is able to claim that the major theses of his book are not seriously challenged, let alone damaged, by the Fellowship of the Black Armband. Perhaps the Manne collection should have been called Hogwash. It neither advanced the discussion, nor did it enhance the reputations of the contributors.
It is a pity that interchanges concerning the verisimilitude or otherwise of historical claims; the conclusions which might legitimately be drawn from them; whether the thesis or theses are coherent, internally consistent, and so on - which are standard moves and standard fare in historical scholarship - should degenerate so quickly, so inevitably, into political stand-offs, ideological spats, and arguments ad hominem, as they do in Australia.
After all, the succession of stages in the argument was, prima facie, normal enough. Thus, a group of historians and observers had put together an account of how Australia was settled by the whites, including their dealings with the Aborigines, and the effects upon the Aborigines themselves. These findings, and conclusions therefrom, became the official view, so to speak, or the received wisdom.
Then another group of historians, anthropologists, and so on, appeared with an assembly of new facts, or with interpretations of "the facts" old and new, and produced a very different set of interpretations, which has come to be called, admittedly by some critics, the black armband version of Australian history.
Following a period of the widespread dissemination of the new version of those particular parts of our history, a third stage has now been reached. New historians have been challenging these Black Armband interpretations, just as, a little earlier, the stories about women's business at Hindmarsh, stolen children, and the Lost Generation, dramatised by the Wilson Report, were being criticised – most effectively. So, the original account of settler-Aborigine relations is returning to favour, and so is Geoffrey Blainey.
There seems nothing remarkable about cyclical or dialectical accounts of historical events and processes – so why the almost instant descent into vilification, packaged bathos, and arguments ad hominem? And why are most of the attacks of this kind coming from one side – alone? At least until those under attack were forced to reply in kind? Well . . . the implications of charges that Australians had done a great injury to their Aborigines, including many atrocities, amounting to extermination or genocide, provided grounds for demanding reparation, compensation, and national apologies. This led in turn to directing large parts of the social product to make good the past damage our forebears had, allegedly, inflicted. These grievances – this blame – provide the underpinning for what has become known as the Aboriginal industry: taking its place, side by side, with the multicultural industry, the equal opportunity and feminism complexes, and so on, which, in toto, amount to billions of dollars, provided by the taxpayers, and used to employ large numbers of people, including many journalists, lawyers and academics.
These people appear to be in a condition of noticeable trepidation, at the ongoing process of delegitimisation and what may follow for them from this, economically and status-wise. They could finish up like those nineteenth-century Russian figures, superfluous men. And women. And persons. So what appears to us as interesting historical or sociological questions, with, in some cases, moral implications, or even puzzles, are for them potentially lethal onslaughts on the hip-pocket café-latte-society nerve.
So perhaps inevitably, the discussions and investigations swiftly became politicised, and the ideological war replaced the history war. Of course, neither of these should have been wars in the first place.
The Return of the Daleks
A recent version of this degradation of the main issues was described by Andrew Bolt's Herald Sun column on 8 September 2003. The occasion? Paul Keating’s launching of Stuart Macintyre's book The History Wars, at the Melbourne State Library. Keating took the opportunity to make another of his abusive, triumphalist diatribes – "We’re on our way, comrades"; those who disagree, or get in the way, are "lickspittles", "reactionaries with tiny timorous hearts", "rancorous", "crabby", "tintookies": people who wanted to "censor the human spirit", and so on, whereas Keating and friends have "a destiny", and "an appointment with reality". This deluded twaddle reminds one of the sillier, psychotic pronouncements of fascist and nazi propagandists; or of the hash-happy student-union squadristi of the Sixties. An extremist, incontinent style, which earlier included Keating labelling the Senate members "unrepresentative swill", and members of the House of Representatives "lice"! A mixture of Tiger Kelly, and Der Stürmer.
This is the second major re-entry into the real world for Keating and his weird entourage, since the apocalypse of 1996. Some of us had thought that he might have learnt from his experiences – had perhaps grown a little; matured. But not so. There is the same braggadoccio - belied by the body language of seething anxiety and adolescent discontent.
We Will Exterminate You
A number of conservative commentators - Frank Devine, Patrick McGuinness, and Andrew Bolt himself - were cast in the role of people who "somehow got the upper hand" – although, "they will simply be a smudge on history!". The upper hand? Of what? Not of all the patronage systems set up, all the institutions hijacked, by the followers of Hawke and Keating, surely? The A.B.C.? S.B.S.? The Arts Council? Our joyless and ransacked universities, not one of which is now in the top hundred of the world's universities? Not our ruined school system, where semi-literacy, or worse, holds court with innumeracy, before a backdrop composed of blackboard jungles, rote-learning, massive truancy, and widespread drug usage?
Have they the upper hand over the mobilisation of an army of young people learning ballet, film-making, media studies, creative writing, for jobs that do not exist: but all of which are politically correct, that is, suffused with infantile communism and lacking all contact with the background cultural history of their subjects, or with the world of work, and ordinary people? Have our errant scribes really got the upper hand there? These escapist enclaves are also the font of innumerable conferences and government grants for nothing in particular. Educationally speaking, here are a series of cruel practical jokes upon the students and the taxpayers, but fat pickings for the ideological entrepreneurs. Were Andrew Bolt, Patrick McGuinness, etc., and those thinking like them, really to get the upper hand here, an enormous clean-out of rorts, rackets, phonies and mountebanks would follow, as we know. Hence come the squeals of fear and rage from the present incumbents – with their upper hands upon the throat of the media, and publishing, as well.
Nevertheless, Keating's hate-objects, and the intellectual support upon whom they are drawing, have got the upper hand, in the debates, but only the debates, which started recently. This was not difficult, considering the sea-green mediocrity, or worse, of the ideologists and front-men for the New Class.
Now that that contest is joined, the purveyors of multiculturalism, Stolen Generations, anti-racism demonology, Panglossian accounts of Revolution - French, Russian, Chinese - are having to listen to critics, and deal with them. Predictably, the Politically Correct and culturally dominant are showing themselves confused, inept, but mightily vindictive.
They share, and draw from, the Keating strategy: if you cannot win the argument in the bar, you win the stoush outside in the pub car park. And this was the gist of the Keating book launch. Nothing has changed.
But it is little use, as Keating did, to reintroduce multiculturalism and the Big Picture into contemporary discussions of everything and nothing. From the outset, those concepts, or gestalts, have never made sense to most people. The terms were never explained, clarified, or "unpacked" (as Gilbert Ryle used to say). Most Australians dropped them into the too-boring basket long ago, along with all the other discredited radical pyramid-schemes.
In Praise of Folly
In the course of this dysfunctional conflict about history, ideology and Aborigines, the role of Melbourne University, especially its Arts faculty, and most especially its History Department, and its Leader, Stuart Macintyre, has been questioned. A subliminal Marxist hegemony throughout this Arts phantasmagoria, with history, notably Australian history, being the jewel in the crown . . . has been identified. I would not disagree, except to say that the Marxism is vulgar Marxism, going back, at the very least, to our wartime years. I found it in full swing when I came up to Melbourne University in 1947.
The sightless beast has hardly changed since; though numerous Popular Fronts have come, and gone, in response to fashion, and opportunity, over that time. Postmodernism, anti-Americanism, Foucault and Lacan, peace in our time, Maoism, anti-the-DLP, anti-the-Vietnam War, Liberation Theology, anti-Israel, pro-Arabism, "say sorry", and so on. Intellectual op-shops are still squatting on campus, with changing patterns of pre-loved agit-objets on sale, or on syllabus; but, in the back room, the op-shop board has been barely changing, still pumping out its calcified cottage-lectures, compliments of the old C.P.A. (much of it associated with the gigantic but incomprehensible reputation of Manning Clark (the savant - not the musical.)) I would not want to disagree with most of this aforesaid account; partly because, it would seem, it is mine.
But briefly, history departments in more and more Australian universities, hitherto having operated with a variety of long-established subjects, saw one after another of the specialised history courses run down, then squeezed out, coterminous with the rise and rise of Australian History (but of the Left, populist variety). At the same time, Classics, and the classical culture adhering to it, was slowly marginalised, or disappeared. The philistines and vulgar Marxists came to rule the roost. A similar story unfolded in the schools, where, at least in Victoria, Years 11 and 12 students were confronted with something called Australian Studies (compulsory), and Australian History. Neither of these subjects was ever popular, and furthermore, they had the effect of not only ruling out other histories, which students would have preferred to take, but they also imperilled the capacity of students to do basic subjects more directly related to their future vocations and projected university work.
So, very reluctantly, Australian Studies was decompulsified, and sank without trace – while Australian History, despite being a soft option, is in general disfavour. But most unfortunately, the marginalisation of other histories in schools, which had earlier occurred, became a permanent feature. It is said that students do not like history (as supposedly, many do not like foreign languages, "dead" languages, maths, and science). And some do not like reading, or writing, or listening, or school, or work. But certainly, most sub-tertiary students are finishing up knowing little history, and the majority of tertiary students are in the same boat.
But, a strange turnaround has been occurring, almost unrelated to the planning and manipulations of our latter-day inner-suburban Zhdanovs. Large numbers of people are learning a kind of history through the media, where the most sought-after programmes turn out to be ancient history, archaeology, biographies of great leaders – most of them Dead White Males – military history, the great religions, and, more and more, the mediaeval world. Commercialised, and brainwashed, universities are being bypassed - to their chagrin. While almost entirely preoccupied with fee-paying students, preferably foreign; real-estate deals here and overseas; the daily adding to great make-work bureaucracies - our old friends, the apparatchiki and nomenklatura - they still have to put on some appearance of culture and diversity, rather than appear as the jumped-up techs, clip-joints, and holding paddocks for the otherwise unemployed, and jaded menopausals, that they really are.
One of the dead languages, Latin, is doing a Lazarus, apparently. I understand it to be in great demand in some universities, including Melbourne. But it is virtually not being taught in Victorian schools, so students are starting from scratch. Whether Ancient Greek could ever return to its rightful place in formal teaching institutions, I know not. But whereas our Sixties trendies, now Tired Tims and Moaning Minnies, screech their versions of Stop The World, I Want To Get Off, finally landing on the padded trampolines of the Government Stroke, then fat retrenchment packages, and then on to doubtless honourable discharges in Castlemaine, Byron Bay, or Tuscany (still bleating "we shall overcome") many of the newer generations want to get off a world which is a moveable nightmare of the phoney, life-hating Left. They are showing signs of wanting again to learn about their society and its gatekeepers; about their cultural past, as it really was, and, who knows, something of their own past. But they accept that they will never learn much of that, as things are, from our schools and universities. People were able to do some of it, if they wished, until the beggars came to town, using the voice of Marx to spread the message of Baal.
National Observer No. 58 - Spring 2003