Oh Mary, Don’t you Weep!

Sometimes I find the inspiration for a blog post in the most unlikely places. Earlier this evening I took Jenny out to the after hours medical clinic at Darwin Private Hospital for treatment for a persistent migraine.

Being a rather expensive establishment, it doesn’t get the sort of dubiously-ill malingering clientele who flog all the latest magazines from the waiting room before anyone has a chance to read them. Consequently I found myself reading a fascinating article about Mary Magdalene in a very recent edition of Time magazine (premium web content so I can’t quote from it verbatim).

Mary, it seems, has been given a bum rap not unlike Pauline Hanson. Contrary to popular Catholic Church-inspired belief, she wasn’t a harlot after all.

In fact she was just a wealthy woman who became the benefactor and patron of Jesus and his disciples. Mary of Bethany was actually the one with a propensity for prostitution, and there may even have been a couple of other Marys prone to giving the occasional horizontal folk-dancing lesson to eke out the housekeeping money. But Mary Magdalene wasn’t one of them. A later unscrupulous Pope (tautological?) decided to conflate the sundry Biblical Marys into the single persona of Mary Magdalene to avoid confusing the lumpen faithful of the times.

The Catholic Church apparently fessed up to its shameful defamation of Mary Magdalene years ago, but it must have been a pretty low-key confession because it certainly escaped my attention.

All this is interesting and credible, but the story goes downhill from there. The Time story went on to recount other claims that Mary Magdalene was pregnant to Jesus at the time of his death, and that Diana, Princess of Wales, is among Jesus’s Marian blood descendants. But don’t scoff too soon. It might not be as unlikely as it sounds. It would certainly explain Diana’s remarkable instinct for self-sacrifice; from marrying a jug-eared inbred halfwit; through slashing her wrists with vegetable peelers; affairs with caddish military officers on the make; to her spectacular exit with a short, fat, ugly Arab playboy while being pursued at high speed by dozens of paparazzi.

One telling point the Time article makes is that the modern Bible, like all histories, was written by the winners. The losers were Mary Magdalene and various sects of early Christians, especially the Gnostics. With a history written two thousand years ago, the “traces” of the spin doctors are very difficult to find. Even with Princess Diana’s death, despite its temporal proximity and the fact that it occurred in the immediate presence of the world’s media, many details remain unclear.

How much more difficult is it to be certain about whether, when and how lots of unknown, obscure and illiterate Aborigines died 150-200 years ago in Tasmania? Yes, you guessed where I was heading. Keith Windschuttle. The latest shot in the history wars was fired by “black armband” historian Henry Reynolds in today’s Age newspaper. It’s apparently an edited extract from his chapter of the just-published Windschuttle-debunking book titled Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, a collection of essays edited by Robert Manne.

Reynolds doesn’t attempt directly to retrieve the badly soiled reputation of his colleague Lyndall Ryan. Instead he embarks on a very effective counter-attack, completely demolishing Windschuttle’s tattered credibility in the process. A definitive interpretation of history’s traces of what happened in Tasmania may in many respects be impossible, but one thing is absolutely certain. Windschuttle may have holed Ryan below the waterline, but he’s undoubtedly taken a mortal torpedo in the powder-magazine in the process. Only someone with an ideological or other obsession so severe as to fatally impair any capacity for rational thought could now treat Windschuttle as an even remotely authoritative source on matters of indigenous history.

Of course, all this is bound to re-ignite the seemingly interminable and increasingly farcical blogospherical history wars as well. I’m looking forward to it, in the same sense that I’m looking forward to prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.

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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cs
cs
2022 years ago

Amazing intro to a good post Ken. Lyndall Ryan has her own chapter in Whitewash. Unfortunately, the book has been so tightly embargoed I understand that not even the contributors who were unable to be at today’s launch have their copies yet.

wen
wen
2022 years ago

You can read Mary Magdalene’s version of the story – the fifth gospel – in Michele Roberts’ ‘The Wild Girl’.
Well, yes, of course it’s fiction – but at least its from the losers pov.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

“Windschuttle may have holed Ryan below the waterline, but he’s undoubtedly taken a mortal torpedo in the powder-magazine in the process. Only someone with an ideological or other obsession so severe as to fatally impair any capacity for rational thought could now treat Windschuttle as an even remotely authoritative source on matters of indigenous history.”

Well….obsessive and incapable of rational thought though I may be, I’m not so persuaded.

Henry Reynolds’ piece, though undoubtedly powerful, reads to me more as a pseudopsychological investigation of Windschuttle’s supposed motivation in writing “Fabrication,” the aim being to discredit him by identifying this as, at best, a contempt – more hopefully, a visceral hatred and loathing – for indigenous life and culture. In short, Windschuttle emerges – all too neatly – as a racist embarked upon a campaign to return us to the notion of Terra Nullius thereby extinguishing aboriginal nationalism and self-determination and reframing the historical understanding of our past, back into a 1950’s context: all in one fell swoop.

Is this what Windschuttle’s motivation is? Does the dark ambition Reynolds ascribes to him have some basis in fact? Does Windschuttle really believe (as Reynolds asserts he does) that the Tasmanian aborigines were but “criminals engaged in murder, assault and theft, largely responsible for the violence and for bringing their fate upon themselves.”? If so, how does that equate with windschuttle’s own lengthy, stated acknowledgement of the ‘cataclysmic effect” that the advent of Europeans wrought upon indigenous society; particularly in respect of the greatest killers of all – introduced microbes?

What all this leads to is the indelible impression that this ‘debate’ has become irrevocably about the delicate minutiae – not of footnotes or bibliographic reference – but the fine legal line between covert character assassination and action at law. I for one am heartily sick to death of the whole bloody business. Our history is not just a case of “Black Armband” or “Whitewash” and I, for one, would be eternally grateful if these self-appointed eminent worthies could start buying into that.

I’m not posting this to initiate debate – believe me! It’s more an expression of deep and total frustration.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

“Black armband” or “white blindfold” is the phrase Geoff. I thought Keith’s acknowledgement of the ‘cataclysmic effect’ was made within the context of his assertions about the ‘inevitabilility’ of Western conquest, and was thus placed safely beyond the range of anything specifically to do with the occupying forces in Tasmania. Still, I take it that your overall point is that the case against Windschuttle is too politically perfect to be true?

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

Something like that. And the fact that historian on historian New Idea-style ‘psychonanalysis’ seems a tawdry route to follow in deriving that outcome.

wen
wen
2022 years ago

In the introduction to her book White Out: How Politics is killing indigenous Australians, Rosemary Neill describes the way her motives were questioned – it seemed to one expert that her critique was just furthering Howard’s racist program. When Ron Brunton criticised the Bringing Them Home report, Robert Manne is reported to have asked “What are you doing this for, mate?”
Inga Clendinnen, Bernard Schlink & Nicholas Hasluck had the audience hiss at them at the Sydney Writers Festival a few years ago (oh, and Bob Ellis walked out!) because they didn’t think that a genocide had been perpetrated on the stolen generations…. I haven’t read Windschuttle – apart from the bits & pieces in the Australian – & I know next to nothing about him, but it does seem that anyone who publicly questions what has become the orthodox view of Indigenous relations and/or history is likely to be tarred by the ‘racist’ brush – & to have their motivation and character impugned, & their message somewhat distorted. Not really the healthiest atmosphere for proper debate, if you ask me.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Wen,

I agree (and with Geoff) that Reynolds lays it on with a trowel, and that the whole debate is very unattractive. However, although Windchuttle certainly uncovers some apparently significant inaccuracies in Lyndall Ryan especially (and I HAVE read the book, twice in fact, although the first time only skim reading), his principal thesis is both odious and demonstrably wrong. I think it’s fairly summarised by another historian Raymond Evans, who described it in these terms:
In an interview earlier this year, Windschuttle stated frankly that British civilisation was clearly superior to “primitive” Aboriginal cultures. In his book, he paints those cultures as dysfunctional, acquisitive and criminally inclined. There was no frontier warfare in Tasmania, he argues, because Aborigines lacked the political capacity or will to defend their territories. They also were incapable of higher sentiments like “compassion”. Rather, they were driven to kill innocent settlers by a form of aggressive consumerism and an otherwise baffling capacity for violence that made Europeans the greater casualties in the struggle.
Finally, you mention Ron Brunton. Here’s what he thought of Windschuttle’s book:
[A]lthough I find much to admire in Windschuttle’s important book, I also think it has serious flaws.

I can’t believe he discussed his research with any anthropologists.

Arguing against Henry Reynolds’ claim that Tasmanian Aborigines fought a guerilla war to defend their country, he rejects the possibility that they had any concept of trespass or rights in land.

He makes the unjustified assertion that such concepts derive only from agricultural societies and that they are alien to hunter-gatherers.

Windschuttle says that none of the lists of words and phrases in Tasmanian languages collated by the 19th century scholar H Ling Roth contain terms for “land”, “own”, “possess” or “property”, or any of their derivatives. But this gets him into an awful mess because, as part of his argument about the conflict, he is forced to accept that the Tasmanian Aborigines believed “game and other fruits of the land belonged to them”.

In other words, they did have the notion that they could “own” or “possess” things, without the specific terms appearing on Ling Roth’s lists which, in any case, are almost certainly limited. …

He also appears to have misunderstood the analysis that archaeologist Rhys Jones made of Tasmanian tribal movements, as he is seemingly unaware of the circumstances and protocols under which mainland Aboriginal groups accessed each other’s territories.

Windschuttle rightfully criticises the one-dimensional view of white settler attitudes that emerges from some historians’ accounts. But he holds an equally crude view of Aboriginal motivations and capacities.

He derides the suggestion that Tasmanian Aborigines might act with “humanity and compassion” because such notions were “literally unthinkable” to them.

This baseless claim not only displays the cultural relativism that Windschuttle otherwise scorns, it also goes against significant evidence that was available to him.

Ling Roth, whom he praises as one of only two “genuinely scholarly” 19th century investigators, describes an unsuccessful attempt by Aboriginal women to rescue two unknown whites who were drowning, and their distress when the men were lost.

wen
wen
2022 years ago

Thanks Ken. Just confirmed my (possibly confucian) opinion that people who comment on books they haven’t read should be prepared …..