Another odd angry shot

Peripatetic blog commenter Norman Hanscombe fires the latest shot in the “culture wars”, with a guest article on Tim Dunlop’s blog detailing inaccuracies in Lyndall Ryan’s work uncovered by Keith Windschuttle. Having digested Windschuttle’s book in a rather hasty scanning session in the NTU Library, I must confess I’d missed much of the detail Norman conveniently summarises.

Norman’s article is a powerful and apparently well-directed shot in this armadillo’s assessment. It might even provoke my co-blogger Christopher Sheil into actually reading Windschuttle’s book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, instead of forming and arguing a viewpoint solely relying on the opinions of like-minded historians who’ve bothered doing so. Then again it might not. One of the mixed blessings of blogging is that you can always write and publish something half-baked and under-researched (or even unresearched) without restriction, except the obvious one that readers might well treat a “shoot from the lip” effort with less than the respect that would normally be due to an eminent historian expressing a view within his own discipline.

Norman has thankfully resisted the temptation to tackle the person instead of the ball, an indulgence that sadly derailed the previous debate on this blog and the discussion of Chris’s initial guest post on Tim’s blog. Comments on Tim’s blog this time have been somewhat less acrimonious (so far), although there still seems to be little attempt at joining issue with Norman on the detail. I’m going to link this post from the sidebar “ongoing debates” heading (which I’m about to create), in the hope that we might get some more considered responses over time, either here or on Tim’s blog. Feel free to widen the topic to include Aboriginal history generally if you wish. After all, Windshuttle’s book is touted as the first of a series covering the gamut of the interaction of Australia’s European and indigenous inhabitants.

Hopefully the above might provoke a minor flurry of comments (he thinks while rinsing the stirring spoon).

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Ron Mead
Ron Mead
2021 years ago

Ken, I must admit to being rather astonished to read that after all the comments you’ve made about this book and the nastyness of Windschuttle that you have only had a “rather hasty scanning session in the NTU Library”. This is rather unlike you as you’ve always struck me as an avid reader of stuff before you blog on it. As it happens I bought the book and read it through shortly after it was published and was struck by the overwhelming volume of detail he lists and analyses.

This non-reading of the book seems to me to be characteristic of many of the Windschuttle critics. One of the reasons I haven’t commented on it much myself in blog comment boxes is that I feel unable to evaluate whether or not his references hold up. I did receive an email from Ron Brunton as a result of one of my comments to the effect that W’s interpretation of some of the anthropology stuff was deficient and that in Ron’s opinion this adversely affected the credibility of the whole work.

This is a reasonable criticism and I respect Ron’s views on matters aboriginal. Nevertheless I’m inclined to treat this failure as W stepping rather unwarily outside his area of knowledge in venturing opinions in an area (anthropology), about which he is apparently not expert, and a failure to consult people like RB who could have assisted him.

This part of the book is in a summation chapter and in my view is not typical of the way the book is constructed – a seemingly painstaking researched point by point destruction of unwarranted claims by the likes of Ryan in particular, but by a variety of other “orthodox” historians as well.

I have heard W does have a reputation as a “difficult” man, but what is important is not his character deficiencies but whether the material he’s researched stands up. I would have expected some substantive response by now, certainly more than has come to light so far, like Manne’s ridiculous quasi-plagiarism claim and Ryan’s trivial misplaced paragraph break.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

Ron,

When I read Windschuttle’s book, the only copy was on 2 hour closed reserve in the NTU Library, and it wasn’t yet stocked by any Darwin bookstore. I really should order myself a copy from Amazon or somewhere, but time is sadly limited at present, and that isn’t likely to change in the near future. I certainly don’t share Chris’s conscientious objection to reading Keith’s book, or even investing my own money in buying a copy.

I always research pretty carefully before blogging in my own legal discipline, but I certainly feel free to “shoot from the lip” in other fields. One of the benefits of the blogosphere IMO is that there’s no inbuilt requirement for academic rigour or exhaustive research. In fact the immediacy of the medium mostly precludes that degree of thoroughness. I feel no embarrassment about revealing deficiencies in my own knowledge in areas outside my own professional discipline (and even within it no-one can know everything). Posting a provocative but poorly researched preliminary viewpoint on an issue can start a dialectic process where everyone ends up learning, as long as some basic principles of courtesy and mutual respect are observed. In fact I think avoiding projecting an aura of omniscient, impregnable academic wisdom helps encourage general readers to participate in a debate where they might otherwise feel intimidated (although that doesn’t usually seem to present a problem for you, Ron).

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

I’ve read it, but it’s hardly a page-turner. W’s writing is as inaccessible and unsympathetic as his public persona. Chris Sheil’s comparative analysis of Reynolds and Windschuttle at the UNSW debate was spot-on. W is on a hiding to nothing when Henry’s schmoozability factor hits full revs.

It’s a shame because W is trying to offer us the sort of nuanced, contextualised understanding of our past that we need to have at this point in our ongoing national maturing – for a thousand dtfferent reasons. He’s just the wrong guy to do it.

Ron Mead
Ron Mead
2021 years ago

No Geoff, I think he’s just the right guy. I can’t remember an Australian book that’s generated so much heat. It really needed the type of person who doesn’t give a damn what you think of him. A more senstive soul would just wither. I can’t wait for the promised second and third volumes. I found it a great read.

Norman
Norman
2021 years ago

Perhaps I have unreasnable expectations. Perhaps my [non historian’s] interest in history is an obsession. But I believe history is capable of something better than what we’re seeing at the moment — and I believe academic historians could treat the subject in a far less “anything goes” manner, as if it’s merely another form of literature. But I could be wrong.
If, however, history is to be taken seriously, as something more than another field of literature, I believe readers need to be reasonably confident they can trust the authors of the material they read. If there AREN’T grounds for some degree of trust, anarchy prevails. Although some may see that as a plus?
I expect to come across different iterpretations of the available evidence. I expect to find different authors presenting different bodies of evidence. What I didn’t expected to see happen in History, was the re-emergence of the sorts of blind adherence to dogmas that aren’t all that different in their approaches, from the attachments to dogma which dominated thinking in the past.
In WW II primary school, the majority of my classmates accepted Biblical stories as literal truth. Even in the 50s, when NSW Departmental Teacher Training lecturers gave us “The Ten Proofs of God”, I was alone in suggesting the evidence seemed flimsy. Nor should we forget the wonderful 60s, when marxists dismissed those of us unable to “understand” that capitalism’s collapse under communism was nigh.
Is it all that different now?
Windschuttle’s critics have that same old confidence, that they’re “obviously” right, and everyone else is either “evil” or “deluded”.
I’d like to think I’m not evil; but maybe I am deluded. It proves nothing that I’ve been right in the past [and that those who now tell me I’m wrong, were often also the ones who told me I was wrong in the past] I may have finally lost the plot, and suddenly [after half a century in the dark] they’ve finally seen the light.
But I’d nevertheless like to see them [just this once — they don’t have to make it a regular habit] put aside their certainties, and examine the evidence.
Think of all the potential pleasure in store for them, when they can show how hopelessly wrong people like me have been. They may even be able to criticise Windschuttle without feeling the need [as happened at Sydney Uni] to fall back on attacking him for allegedly kicking his cat?

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

Attacking him for kicking his cat seems entirely unreasonable. Surely attacking him for having a cat would have been a more appropriate response from his opponents. The invasive European pest laying waste the pristine natural environment, etc. I’m quite sure that Henry Reynolds wouldn’t have one….

Norman
Norman
2021 years ago

Thanks Geoff. I know now that at least you probably won’t deem me evil. Especially when I tell you I spend time in the adjoining rain forest, helping Fred, the brush turkey, by clearing fallen branches, thus making leaf gathering so much easier for him. You [along with my smaller finches, honey eaters, etc] would approve of my handling of the cat problem also; but it’s best I don’t detail that publicly.

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