Al fires an odd angry shot

Al Bundy has posted an amusing and lengthy shot in the History Wars at his blog. The latest skirmish started with Al posting in my comment box (to this post) a link to an account in the Oz of events at a meeting of the Australian Historical Association, which discussed various proposals including one by Cathie Clement (a fairly frequent commenter at this and other blogs) for a Code of Ethics for historians. The Oz journo (Ean Higgins) appears to have been markedly unimpressed by the code of ethics idea, seeing it as a ‘circle the wagons’ response by ‘black armband’ historians intent more on stifling open debate than encouraging it to be conducted in ethical, civil terms.

Al Bundy’s post is partly a response to this needlessly offensive comment from Rob Corr, as well as Rob’s own recent post. But Al mostly takes aim at Cathie Clement and her code of ethics idea, especially her explanation of it at Rob Corr’s blog.

I tried to post a lengthy comment at Al Bundy’s blog, but his comment box facility is a tad limited to say the least, so I’ve decided to post it here instead:

Al,

A stylish and amusing refutation. But you haven’t convinced me that Cathie Clement’s code of ethics is either malevolently intended or necessarily a bad idea (although see below). The fact that she has a disposition towards one side of the debate doesn’t mean she’s trying to stifle the opposition. I invariably have an opinion about issues I post about, but I also sometimes emphasise that I’m not an expert in that area (where that’s the case). I also try to encourage debate about my posts from all sides, and I want that debate to be robust but civil. The fact that Cathie clearly has an opinion doesn’t mean she’s being disingenuous to mention that she’s not an expert on Tasmanian indigenous history, nor does it make her a “shill” for the ‘black armband’ mob.

Cathie’s proposed rule saying that members should refrain from publicly attacking the integrity or competence of other members (not refrain from attacking their ideas) is just a more highfalutin’ way of saying you should attack the ball not the man (or not engage in ad hominem argument). A good basic principle of civil debate, in my opinion. It’s preferable to highlight errors as errors or even “consistent errors” or “riddled with errors” not “fabrications”. Attacking an opponent’s integrity in that way simply forces them to respond in a defensive and aggressive manner, rather than concentrate on the issues themselves in a more measured, thoughtful way. I seldom have a problem with being shown to be wrong (it happens often), but I would intensely resent being labelled a liar or cheat. Who wouldn’t?

For example, I concluded at the end of the discussion on my blog about “terra nullius” that Henry Reynolds had probably been very sloppy in adopting that term to describe 18th and early 19th century understandings of the juridical basis for Australian settlement (because the term may not have actually existed then), but the thought content of “terra nullius” is essentially identical to formulations by Blackstone, de Vattel and Locke that manifestly DID form the justificatory underpinning for what occurred. So it was certainly an error on Reynolds’ part, but I don’t think it’s fair to call that error a “fabrication” with all its pejorative implications (i.e. impugning integrity).

It’s a little harder to defend Ryan on that sort of basis. However, even there, the fact that she made a highly exaggerated estimate of the number of deaths, in some areas without any or any adequate evidentiary basis, doesn’t make her account a “fabrication” any more than Windschuttle’s fairly clearly seriously UNDERSTATED death toll (according to Willis, who seems to have done the hard yards on research and analysis) can reasonably be so labelled.

I think attempting to encourage civil debate is a good idea. However, it would have been better if Clement’s code had been presented as voluntary “guidelines” rather than a code enforceable by disciplinary action by the professional body. As you observe (given the evident “black armband” sympathies of the great majority of association members), the code could effectively be used to target revisionists and try to discredit their ideas, under the guise of enforcing civility. Even if that wasn’t the case, it would inevitably be seen that way in the current highly-charged atmosphere. In fact it’s already happened. So it was a dumb idea in a PR sense.

Moreover, it may be a dumb idea in a broader sense. Guidelines for civil debate are desirable, maybe even essential, in academic discourse. But Windschuttle et al are trying to shift perceptions in the broader public arena. It’s entirely reasonable for them to seek broad public attention for their ideas. Reynolds had a priceless advantage 25-30 years ago when first promulgating his “black armband” thesis. It was so sensational and challenging in itself that it was guaranteed wide coverage. Reynolds didn’t need to attack earlier historians savagely, or devise other (dodgy) tabloid attention-seeking tactics (although I suspect Reynolds was and is an accomplished self-publicist).

Windschuttle’s claims are inherently less spectacularly newsworthy: some historians were a little sloppy (and Ryan perhaps VERY sloppy), and maybe there were less Tasmanian Aborigines violently killed than some current accounts suggest. Yawn! He wouldn’t have received mainstream coverage for those ideas had he not labelled the errors “fabrications” and had his supporters not begun covering the debate in breathless terms as a war for the heart and soul of history. In reality, it’s nothing of the kind. Australia was still conquered without the consent of its inhabitants, many Aborigines were killed violently (some in cold blood and some during frontier warfare) and many more died from imported diseases. Getting the estimates of numbers right as far as possible, and getting footnoted sources correct, are certainly important for professional historians (or they should be), but that doesn’t change the broad meaning or significance of the underlying narrative.

However, it’s pretty clear that some of Windschuttle’s supporters (if not Windschuttle himself) ARE trying to shift public perceptions of the underlying significance of all this (just as some of the ‘black armband’ mob have political agendas – promoting, treaties, compensation to the ‘stolen generations’ etc). Windschuttle and his coterie of admirers are trying to move public feelings back in the direction of a latter-day version of the views of Blackstone or Locke, and see Aborigines as a bunch of ignorant, bloodthirsty, disorganised savages whose culture was quite rightly ignored and trampled by the ‘invaders’. Although I reckon some of the ‘black armband’ brigade are both precious and somewhat stalinist, I think they’re entirely justified in responding in the public arena, because the neo-Lockean view is wrong and poisonous. We DO need to accept and come to terms with the fact that our forebears violently conquered Australia without the consent of its inhabitants, and treated them appallingly for a very long time thereafter. Moreover, those events continue to resonate and still need to be addressed in a range of ways. Whether that requires treaties and the like at this late stage is another matter.

The problem is that, once a debate leaves the rarefied realms of academia and enters the mainstream media, the rhetoric will inevitably get more robust and tabloid. You’d like to hope that it could still be civil, but the reality is that some participants will inevitably cross the line from time to time in their enthusiasm to generate publicity. I really think the ‘black armband’ mob (including Cathie Clement) should be a little less precious and defensive, and a little more relaxed about it all. Despite the glare of publicity and the unaccustomed robust language, I reckon truth will still prevail. I don’t really see any sign that the broader propaganda aims of Windschuttle et al are being achieved, except among some RWDBs who never needed any persuading anyway.

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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Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, I couldn’t agree more with the call for civility in these discussions – and with your analysis of how the inflated rhetoric helped get Windschuttle “cause celebre” status. The article by Dirk Moses, a link to which I posted in a previous related thread here, makes the point nicely too. I’m puzzled by the logic of the Australian’s piece – presumably Windschuttle is not a member of the Australian Historical Association, so Cathie Clement’s code of ethics, if adopted would only apply to those professional historians who are members. It seems to me that her proposal has a justification of its own wholly seperable from the “History Wars” affair.

Stan
Stan
2022 years ago

Do you think Clement and others of the established way of thinking would have been forced to respond to reports of their “errors”

David Tiley
2022 years ago

It is not legitimate to smear ordinary people. I don’t care if they are historians, priests, policepeople, kindergarten teachers or shopowners.

To drag someone into the public arena and vilify them is a dreadful thing to do.

I have some issues with the treatment of Blainey, but at least he volunteered his position as a deliberate, rhetorical position in a public debate for which he had a lifetime of experience. And so does Reynolds.

Ryan and Clement are not public in that sense. There’s three stages – commentary in an academic space, commentary which is discussed in a wider arena, and then demonisation and vilification.

There is a big difference between “the debate gets more robust and tabloid” as a result of the Pearsons et al dipping their doo doo on people, and the historians doing it to each other. As in Windschuttle on “fabrication”.

Ken’s summary puts the whole debate into perspective very well IMHO.

John
John
2022 years ago

Stan’s claim that the absence of a libel suit means that Windschuttle’s claims must be justified/defensible is about as alarming a suggestion as any I’ve seen so far. That would really do great things for civility.

Stan
Stan
2022 years ago

There’s no such thing as a debate in academia that somehow off-limits to the public. The public, through editors of newspapers, decide whether it is topical or not. If the public takes an interest, then let the academic beware.

If academics take a position on something, then they must stand by that position or correct it where appropriate. To that end, I think it’s a bit rich for academics to claim some sort of “literary license”

Dan
Dan
2022 years ago

Nice one, Ken.

Stan:

Do you think Clement and others of the established way of thinking would have been forced to respond to reports of their “errors”

Robert
2022 years ago

Yes, it was needlessly offensive. Sorry everyone.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Stan’s post, with respect, fills me with the intense frustration that the “History Wars” – and the “Culture Wars” more generally – never fail to elicit in me. “Don’t make stuff up”, he says. Lyndall Ryan has acknowledged errors in her footnotes – I think in about 6 out of about 1000 footnotes in her thesis. There’s a difference, as Ken points out, between error (which we are all prone to) and “fabrication”.

I take Ken’s argument to be a call for civility. It seems to me that a discussion about the significnce of our history for our national identity would be enormously rewarding. Unfortunately it’s descended into partisan politics and name-calling (yes, often, on both sides). One of many ironies, for me, is that the same “conservatives” who’d agree with Johnnie Howard about the dangers of an increasingly aggressive culture exemplify it themselves in the “RWDB” style of so-called “debate” which seems to epitomise the elision of reasoned public discourse by partisan attack. Again, Ken’s comment about Windschuttle’s escalation of the rhetoric is absolutely on target.

Stan
Stan
2022 years ago

Hey, if you want to advance the cause of civility, stop with the RWDB tag every time you meet someone who doesn’t vote Labor in this thread.

I’m not Keith Windschuttle and I don’t believe I ventured so far in my comments to defend everything he has said or done. But much in the way as some on the left can say that Michael Moore is a blatant propagandist but he makes a point here or there, I believe that same luxury should be extended to Keith Windschuttle. There were factual errors in the histories used by our established academics that in turn were being used to support particular political points of view — sometimes by these academics themselves. Windschuttle has achieved a lot by pointing this out, despite his tactics. I don’t have to agree with everything he says to appreciate this point.

Whether we like it or not there is a debate about our history and culture going on in this country. I’m terribly suspicious that those who would call this a History or Cultural War, and would call for civility in the debate at this point, might just be calling for quarter when The War is not going quite their way.

So far as I can tell, any public discourse that takes place in the national newspapers or television is bounded by laws or regulations that ensure the community standards for debate are met, hence my point about defamation. Academics get no special dispensation should their work make it into these community forums, and nor should they. The fact that most of the debate occurs in a national broadsheet (The Australian), probably means it’s even more civil that it could have been. This is where I believe Ken is wrong. There is no line that has been crossed in this debate. It’s just a debate like any other in a public forum.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Stan

You might note that I included “some” before RWDB to encompass your point. Note also that I don’t use RWDB to refer to anyone with a conservative/right of centre viewpoint. As far as I’m concerned, the only people who qualify as RWDBs are those who habitually resort to ad hominem abuse, scorn and ridicule of opponents, and who seem incapable of conducting a civil discussion where they assume that their opponent is an intelligent human being who holds views sincerely even though they happen to differ from his/her own. If you’ve been reading blogs for a while, you’ll know exactly which bloggers and commenters I’m talking about. There are also some on the left who seem equally incapable of carrying on a civil discussion, while on the other hand there are lots on all sides who generally discuss things civilly and who don’t merit the ‘death beast’ label. You’re clearly in the latter category and not someone who I’d ever think of as a RWDB.

Stan
Stan
2022 years ago

Thank you Ken, I knew that, but thanks anyway. Still, it struck me as out of place in your post, even in discussion about Keith Windschuttle. If the labels left and right aren’t particularly useful in political discussion sometimes, then neither is RWDB or Moonbat.

Al Bundy
Al Bundy
2022 years ago

What?!?? RWDB is supposed to be an offensive tag?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Stan, I wasn’t calling you an RWDB. It was a more general comment about civility. Sorry if it came across that way.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

Al has a point about RWDB. I’ve always understood it to be a self-applied badge of honour donned by conservatives who wish to make manifest the most nightmarish fantasies of Lefties. In that sense, utilising it as a term of derision doesn’t “work.” The whole point about the usage of RWDB is that it utilises an implicit insult as a self-congratulatory empowerment vehicle; though most RWDB’s would, presumably, eschew the use of girlie terms like ’empowerment’ – unless it related specifically to handguns.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

RWDB are conservatives.

Interesting theory which I might embrace if any of them gave even a mildly critical comment of Bush or Howard which a true conservatives would.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

A true conservative like Malcolm Fraser, for instance! Yet he’s derided by the current mob as “left wing” which is really pretty nonsensical.

kyan gadac
kyan gadac
2022 years ago

The history wars extend beyond Windschuttle vs Reynolds et al – there has been plenty of defamation suits over the Hindmarsh Bridge for instance. So I don’t think pleas for understanding or civility are serving much purpose.

The ‘Windshchuttle is a propagandist like Mike Moore so that’s alright’ line sucks. David Irving is a propagandist too- does that make what he says alright?

Reynolds books in the 80’s were important because they disabused the notion that Aborginal people didn’t simply accept colonization but resisted.

Windschuttle et al. still long for this former comforting lie which is the reason that they continue to howl for their masters who don’t give a damn about ‘fuckin darkies’, as my uncle used to call ’em – right civil fellow he was, my uncle, belonged to all the right clubs.

Robert
2022 years ago

Manas once told me she thought RWDB stood for Right Wing Dick Brains. It’s stuck in my head, so whenever I hear them use it in a self-congratulatory way it takes me a second before I remember the other acronym.

Stan
Stan
2022 years ago

It might be just me, but I took the term RWDB to be associated with extreme right-wing views.

It then struck me as odd to see the term applied in a debate where one side of the argument is calling for civility. I mean, it’s hardly civil to assert that anyone who disagrees with your point of view must necessarily then be an extremist — even if they support elements of Windschuttle’s arguments. I’ll leave you to judge.

But I’m glad I provided a talking point and I must necessarily review my definition of the term RWDB. (PS. Thanks Mark).

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

[deep breath] Look, if you want to disagree with them (dick brains, death beasts, whatever); to counteract their policies and replace with with your own utopian morally superior received wisdoms then it would help your cause if you understood these people. I have witnessed Windschuttle go to great pains to make it clear that the colonisation of Australia by whites had a terrible impact on Aboriginal peoples – well duh, it is obvious. Please do not make the debate about something it isn’t. His point was that it would be better to get the facts straight and start from there.

Tokenistic anti-white middle class marxist bullshit is counter productive and is wedge politics of the most ridiculous kind. (The idea of wedge politics is you create a division in society and, here is the important bit, ensure you are on the winning side). I’ve just spent 4 weeks with kind decent hard working people up north and they are jacked off at seeing governemt handouts squandered and wasted and some of the things they say about the people receiving those handouts the sitting under a treee and getting pissed on it are not very nice.

Is the attrocious quality of life experienced by fellow Australians today in 2004 not enough of a cause for some bi-partisanship? Who pays the cost of whiteys calling each other names and alienating each other? Not whiteys.

Al Bundy
Al Bundy
2022 years ago

Tut, tut, James. Don’t you realise you’re criticising a well thought out and rational argument. To wit,something like this:

“AIEEEEEE,Windschuttle is the devil! Gather up yer pitchforks and lanterns, we’re gonna have us a witch-burnin’.”

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Al (and james)

I haven’t noticed many (if any) commenters on this thread running aline that says “Windschutle is the devil” or anything remotely like it. Certainly I didn’t. And Cathie Clement’s contribution yesterday (see the “terrorising terra nullius” thread) is also very constructive and acknowledges that neither side of the debate has a monopoly on truth. In fact Cathie has offered to obtain and post a copy of the recent work of HA Willis, who has reviewed all the evidence and formulated a detailed assessment of Aboriginal deaths in Tasmania which is substantially higher than Windschuttle’s claims but substantially lower than those of Ryan. As Cathie observes, acrimonious exchanges of abuse don’t really help very much. Let’s look at the facts, and explore the range of evidentiary bases and assumptions historians have used in reaching their differing accounts. I reckon that can tell us quite a lot, and it needn’t involve sterile (and, frankly, childish) left versus right abuse. Maybe I didn’t assist by even using the expression “RWDB” in passing, so do you reckon we can put aside this nonsense? Aren’t you as bored with it as I am?

Al Bundy
Al Bundy
2022 years ago

Aw, but Ken, Kyan compared Windschuttle to David Irving first…

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

OK I agree, Kyan was silly. But let’s try and concentrate on the sensible stuff. Sometimes mutual abuse is good fun, but it’s sort of been done to death on this topic.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

You’re a very naughty boy, Al. I want you to go and write 100 times “I must not resort to ad hominem abuse unless some arsehole drives me crazy and I can’t help myself.”

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

No worries, Stan.

Gary
2022 years ago

Ken

You complain about “ad hominem” allot but how is one to respond to statements like this.

“see Aborigines as a bunch of ignorant, bloodthirsty, disorganised savages whose culture was quite rightly ignored and trampled by the ‘invaders'”

I haven’t noticed anybody poshing that line, and why not for the sake of civility consider condescending sneering and evasive debating tactics equally offensive.

For that matter statements like this from Homer Paxton witch is an out right lie and deserve nothing but ridicule.

“Interesting theory which I might embrace if any of them [RWDB] gave even a mildly critical comment of Bush or Howard which a true conservatives would.”

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Gary,

You don’t seem to have understood the meaning of the expression “ad hominem”. It means attacking someone’s personality, character or integrity. My comment that you quoted in no way does that. It summarises part of Windschuttle’s argument in his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, but says nothing at all about Windschuttle’s character, personality or integrity. Moreover, I suggest that it’s a fair summary of (part of) Windschuttle’s argument, as most people who’ve actually read the book would agree.

I don’t speak for Homer Paxton, but his statement you quoted isn’t ad hominem either. It makes a factual assertion which I agree with you is false (i.e. that RWDBs never criticise Howard or Bush), but it doesn’t attack their character or integrity (at least directly). You might reasonably argue that there’s an ad hominem implication, however, namely that RWDBs don’t hold their views sincerely, but merely defend Howard and Bush mindlessly on ideological grounds and irrespective of the facts. I reckon there are some RWDBs about whom that’s a fair statement, but it’s unfair as a sweeping generalisation, and ad hominem in any event.

By contrast, Windschuttle’s book, both in its title and contents, DOES attack the integrity of historians like Ryan and Reynolds by accusing them of “fabrication” i.e. deliberate lying. That IS ad hominem abuse, and it’s an accusation that certainly isn’t sustained in the case of Reynolds. I’m less comfortable about defending Ryan, because her mistakes were considerably more serious, but I still think it’s an overstatement to label them “fabrication”.

It isn’t ad hominem to summarise an opponent’s substantive argument (which is what I did) in unflattering terms that make it clear you disagree with it. In fact, it’s difficult to see how one could ever carry on any argument without doing so. The reason why the distinction between the argument and the arguer’s character/integrity is critically important is one I’ve already explained. Arguments can be debated calmly on their merits, even where that debate is robust. But attacks on someone’s character or integrity introduce a nasty, personal element that ensures the debate gets derailed, defensive and unnecesasarily aggressive. It’s that which I’m trying to minimise, while conceding that I’m not a saint and don’t always succeed in avoiding ad hominem abuse myself. However, the passage you quoted isn’t an example.

Gary
2022 years ago

Thanks Ken

I still don’t understand the difference between your statement that implies blind bigotry on the part of Windschuttle and his supporters as not being ad hominem. Not that I think you shouldn’t use ad hominem because sometimes that’s the only response they deserve. If Windschuttle doesn’t support his claim that they fabricated there claims then he is be dishonest. I disagree with you that assessing someone’s character or integrity isn’t part of whether they are telling the truth. You can have the same facts but two different conclusions so personalities is the only way to judge.

I didn’t think Homer was outwardly ad hominem but it deserve nothing but an ad hominem response. Calling him a liar or deluded for making that statement is fare game.

Cathie
Cathie
2022 years ago

I’m going back to the opening points in this thread, and I’ll try not to be too ‘precious and defensive’, Ken.
Neither the Australian Historical Association nor the Australian Council of Professional Historians Associations is proposing that a code of ethics should govern the behaviour of all historians. When I proposed that the profession should think about ways to make the history wars more constructive, I was speaking as an individual. I suggested that the national level bodies might like to consider ‘hosting moderated debates, compiling written standards, and renewing deliberations about the proposed AHA code of ethics’. The various bodies are prepared to discuss my proposal but that does not mean that they support it.

I hope that some good will come out of the discussions because I believe that, if Australia is to benefit from the history wars, their format has to change. At present, the arguments are more like a punch up than a boxing match. Most people accept rules, arbitration and tribunals in things like sport and employment. So why is there such an outcry over a proposal to see whether the endorsement of a set of rules might temper the history wars?

Ken remarks that “it would have been better if Clement’s code had been presented as voluntary “guidelines”

TrueRWDB
TrueRWDB
2022 years ago

“Of course, commenters are welcome to discuss whatever they want (within reason), but I frankly couldn’t be less interested ina resumption of the interminable debate about Tasmanian massacres and Keith Windschuttle. I just don’t think there’s anything more to say. ”

Hell, Ken, what’s changed since this comment of yours on 1 July? Have we all got our second (or third or fourth or fifth) wind on this topic?

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

TRWDB

I initially wrote this post as a response to one by Al Bundy, partly because I thought he was being rather unfair to Cathie Clement, and partly because Cathie’s code of ethics proposal feeds into my own recent blogging obsession with exploring notions of civility, duty and shared social values.

I was aware that any post that mentions the History Wars was likely to re-ignite the same old slagging contest we’ve been through time and again, but I thought it was worth the risk. As it turned out, I don’t think this thread has been terribly constructive or interesting (except for Cathie’s long post above). I’m not sure whether that means the topic is exhausted, or whether there might be other ways of approaching it that might yet be productive of more stimulating discussion.

Cathie has provided me in private correspondence with some material and suggestions on how we might use this blog to “look at the facts, and explore the range of evidentiary bases and assumptions historians have used in reaching their differing accounts”, instead of just slagging each other from our ideological foxholes. I’m not sure yet whether Cathie’s idea is feasible, but I’m certainly attracted to the idea of seeing whether blogs can be used in new and different ways to stimulate constructive debate.

The good thing about blogs is that you don’t have to read a post if it bores you rigid, and there’ll nearly always be another one the next day on a different topic that might be more to your taste.

Tim Lambert
2022 years ago

Scott Campbell’s response to the Oz article was to declare Windschuttle “one of the world’s foremost intellectuals”. I have some comments on this here.

trackback
2022 years ago

Genius in France?

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