Being rather unfamiliar with the whole History Wars imbroglio, it’s maybe a little stupid of me to enter the fray, but what the hell. I’m going to make a few observations about the Quadrant article by Keith Windschuttle that Ken Parish linked to below. I should make clear that I have not read Fabrication 1, so please excuse any inadequacies in what follows.
One of the noticeable things about Windschuttle’s Quadrant essay is that it is not footnoted, and many quotes aren’t even informally sourced. This is rather odd, given the comments Windschuttle made in praise of the footnote when he reviewed Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History, and also given his criticism of others for sloppy footnoting. The lack of either footnotes or sources is occasionally confusing; for example, Windschuttle describes Robert Manne’s:
…obvious chagrin over the degree of media coverage Fabrication has attracted. He claims The Australian newspaper supported my book as part of a wider neo-conservative agenda demanded by proprietor Rupert Murdoch. “While The Australian was championing Windschuttle,” he writes, “it was also providing — alongside all Murdoch newspapers — unambiguous support for Anglo-American preparations for war against Iraq.” Hence The Australian, Manne claims, “has become this country’s first genuinely neo-conservative newspaper”.
The truth is The Australian has run just as many stories and opinion pieces critical of my work as it has in favour of it. It commissioned the first review from Henry Reynolds and gave him a double-page spread.
From where is Windschuttle quoting Manne? You would assume, as I did, that Windschuttle is referring to Manne’s introduction from Whitewash 2. Manne’s introduction in Whitewash does makes mention of Fabrication’s coverage in The Australian, but I could find no reference to Iraq. Upon googling, it seems the reference is actually to one of Manne’s columns. So why quote from The Age when Windschuttle could’ve quoted from the book about which he is actually talking?
It doesn’t take a genius to figure this out. In his introduction, as opposed to his column, Manne acknowledges pretty much everything that Windschuttle says about the coverage in The Australian:
It was certainly not the case that in their sponsorship of the ‘sorely needed’ Windschuttle debate The Australian published only articles favourable to Fabrication. In the coming weeks it would publish a review by Henry Reynolds, a self-defence by Lyndall Ryan and contra Windschuttle pieces by Bain Attwood and Dirk Moses as well as pro Windschuttle commentaries by Roger Sandall, Peter Ryan…Geoffrey Blainey, Janet Albrechtsen and Windschuttle himself. Yet it was also obvious to anyone following the coverage of the controversy in The Australian where the sympathies of the paper lay. The Australian twice editorialised favourably on Windschuttle. It pursued Windschuttle’s targets with real tenacity…It dismissed the claim that Windschuttle, the defender of old-fashioned scholarly standards, had copied out or lightly paraphrased a number of passages from the American anthropologist, Robert Edgerton, as ‘a diversionary tactic‘. And it recycled a 7000 word personal attack on the academic who had noticed the borrowings (a certain Robert Manne), which was written by the wife of the editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, and which had been published in The Courier-Mail eighteen months before. Chiefly because of the promotion by The Australian, the publication of the first volume of Fabrication became a major cultural event.
Manne is making a serious argument here about The Australian’s coverage of the History Wars. Rather than engaging with it, or maybe arguing against it, Windschuttle ignores it. It’s a minor point, obviously, but if Windschuttle wants to pimp his Quadrant essay as a response to the arguments in Whitewash, it would help if he actually responded to the arguments in Whitewash, not the arguments presented, only as sketches, in newspaper columns.
Indeed, this is by no means the only example of Windschuttle avoiding what is said in Whitewash. In Quadrant, Windschuttle observes that:
In Whitewash, Reynolds does not defend his views about either genocide or extermination. Yet this is supposed to be the place in which he and Ryan answer my major charges against them. This is very telling. I take their complete silence on this issue as an admission that their earlier claims are unsustainable.
As others have noted, Reynold’s views about genocide aren’t really that different from Windschuttle’s, and in any event, Whitewash’s best essay, Martin Krygier and Robert van Krieken’s “The Character of the Nation”, contains some discussion of the genocide question. On this issue Krygier and van Krieken essentially say that the whole genocide question depends on whether “genocide” is thought of narrowly or broadly, and they point out that discussion of it is mostly beside the point, since a finding of no genocide would 3:
…not in any way diminish the need to recognise what remains problematic about the Lockean approach 4 and what remains violent and destructive about otherwise civilised settler-colonisation in the name of the rule of law.
Which is all well and good, but what I’m interested in is the off-handed way in which Windschuttle suggests that the silence of Reynolds and Ryan is “an admission that their earlier claims are unsustainable”. There are many arguments in Whitewash that Windschuttle’s Quadrant essay does not respond to, or ever mention. Since it is billed as a response to Whitewash, then by his own standard, we now have an “admission” by Windschuttle that much of Fabrication is “unsustainable”.
Take for example the question of standards of proof. Shayne Breen puts the matter succinctly 5:
Windschuttle fails to adhere to the standards he seeks to impose on others. He argues, for example, that a direct quotation from an Aborigine is necessary evidence for any claim that they were defending their country, but he provides no direct quotation from any Aborigine, or any linguistic evidence, that they regarded themselves as robbers, murderers and arsonists.
The robbers-and-murders characterisation of Tasmanian Aborigines is an important conclusion for Windschuttle, because it shows that when Aborigines killed settlers they were not motivated by anything as high-minded as defence of territory. This discrepancy in standards of proof is most revealing. It points in particular to a deficiency in the robbers-and-murders characterisation, and more generally to an inconsistent approach to standards of proof. The Quadrant article addresses neither of these issues.
Windschuttle makes a lot out of the failure of other historians to live up to the standard of proof he imposes on them. A related issue here is what Windschuttle thinks this failure implies. As Krygier and van Krieken put it 6:
If massacres cannot be unequivocally shown to have occurred, according to rather strenuous conditions of proof, then the verdict in Fabrication is not the Scottish ‘not proven’ but ‘non-existent’.
Henry Reynolds makes a similar point with respect to the issue of Aboriginal “ownership” of ancestral lands. He argues that the limited linguistic evidence Windschuttle provides does not show that there existed among Aborigines no word for “land”. Simply put, even though Windschuttle can find no such word in the records he consults, there is an unknown number of Tasmanian Aboriginal words that were not recorded for posterity. In other words 7:
All Windschuttle can legitimately say is that words for land don’t appear in the vocabularies printed in Roth.
That is, Windschuttle cannot say that these words did not exist, merely that on his evidence their existence isn’t proven. In Quadrant Windschuttle does not discuss the difference between “not proven” and “non-existent”, indeed, as the following quote from the Quadrant essay shows, Windschuttle persists in his belief that they are the same 8:
So the diary entry on which both 9 place so much faith 10, and which they pretend I was unaware, is itself seriously undermined by two quite separate pieces of information. That is why this incident does not appear in my book.
The logic is clear; Windschuttle will simply expunge as “non-existent” what is in reality only “not proven”. It goes without saying that in Quadrant Windschuttle provides no explanation for his failure to uphold this distinction.
Consider also Windschuttle’s comments that 11:
There is a world of difference between historians who go to the past to investigate the evidence about their subject and those who go to vindicate a stand they have already taken.
Having convinced himself in a few months in 2000 that no significant killings of Aboriginals had occurred on the Australian frontier, and having staked his reputation on the conclusion already reached, Windschuttle now embarked upon the necessary archival research…
The result being Fabrication, and I would add a pretty clear example of vindicative 14 methodology. In Quadrant Windschuttle has nothing to say about his apparent failure to live up to his own investigative standard.
All of these arguments in Whitewash — the standard of proof, not proven v. non-existent, vindication v. investigation — are to do with fundamental principles of historical research and analysis. It is difficult to imagine why anyone would take Windschuttle seriously as a historian if any of these arguments stand. As it is, Windschuttle’s Quadrant essay ignores all of them. His “complete silence” here is quite an “admission”.
Maybe if I can be bothered, I might do a couple more posts on this topic, one providing a sampling of less theoretical issues that Windschuttle avoids, and another analysing what the Quadrant article actually says. That’s if I can be bothered, because this post did take a bit longer to write than I thought it would. Also, apologies in advance to Ken Parish.
- though I recently read Whitewash
- helpfully reproduced, though interestingly enough also sans footnotes, here
- p. 97-8 of Whitewash
- justifying dispossession on the grounds that Aborigines only occupied, and did not “possess”, what was taken from them
- p. 145 of Whitewash
- p. 90 of Whitewash
- p. 111 of Whitewash
- emphasis added
- James Boyce and Ian McFarlane
- which provides some evidence of killings not recorded by Windschuttle
- p.402 of Fabrication
- see e.g. p. 46 and 104 of Whitewash
- without making specific reference to vindication v. investigation