White Australia Policy and Washout book launch
by Frank Devine, launching:
The White Australia Policy by Keith Windschuttle and
Washout: On the academic response to the Fabrication of Aboriginal History by John Dawson
Tattersalls Club, Sydney
December 6, 2004
When I open a new book by Keith Windschuttle these days, I hear in my mind the twang of Tex Ritter's voice singing the theme from High Noon:
I do not know what fate awaits me
I only know I must be brave
And I must face a man who hates me
Or lie a coward, a craven coward
Or lie a coward in my grave.
With his latest work, The White Australia Policy, Keith makes two things perfectly clear: he has no reason to worry about a courage shortfall, and an even larger number of men (and women) in the closed society of academic historians will now hate him.
He may not get to face them, though. In 20 or more public debates after the appearance of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Keith might be said to have shot his adversaries full of holes.
They may hesitate to take to the street again.
I'd also be surprised if freshly offended historians attempt a riposte on the lines of Whitewash, a book of essays edited by Robert Manne, which pulsated with indignation but attempted little refutation of Keith's accusations of fabrication.
In another new book, John Dawson, a Melbourne freelance writer, presents a ruthlessly detailed, largely empirical critique of Whitewash. His book is combatively entitled Washout: on the academic response to The Fabrication of Aboriginal History.
John takes note of the boast by Professor Henry Reynolds, of the University of Tasmania, about the way the historians' union dealt with Geoffrey Blainey, when he expressed non-conforming opinions about immigration: "A whole team got together with jackhammers to criticise Blainey's views and pull down his edifice."
However, what John describes in Washout seems more a retreat of the jackhammers than an attack. One of the by-products of the bitter campaign against Keith was a proposal that the Australian Historical Society establish a code of ethics. It would forbid historians to criticise one another.
In The White Australia Policy Keith sportingly gives historians opportunity to speak for themselves. The book begins with a salvo of disapproving comments on the national character. They are quotations from historians, whose low opinion of us derives from the evil intent they attribute to the Immigration Restriction Bill of 1901, also known to them as the White Australia Policy.
Here are three of our unfavourable reviews. By Henry Reynolds:"[The White Australia Policy] represented a messianic pursuit of racial purity." Eric Richards, of Flinders University: "Australia
was in danger of becoming a pariah, not far removed from South Africa." Gavin Jones, of ANU: "The Anzac legend created by the war historian Charles Bean, equated
white supremacy with Australian fighting spirit."
The present generation of academic historians, Keith tells us, considers Australia, like the other settler societies of the British empire, a "herrenvolk democracy," formed from the same master race concept that inspired Nazi Germany.
Keith considers the idea ridiculous. Rather than being motivated by fantasies of white supremacy, he argues, Australians based their exclusionist immigration laws -- inappropriate as they may now appear -- on principled political theory. They sought wage justice and wished, as a reaction against the class oppressions of 19th century Europe, to create an egalitarian society.
Keith boldly equates these objectives with the anti-slavery movement of the 19th century and, in Australia, the opposition to unpaid convict labour.
The target of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Bill was not non-whites generally, but Chinese particularly. They had first come to Australia in their thousands as indentured labourers, willing to endure extortionately low pay and dire living conditions. They were resented as stealers of other men's jobs.
However, identifying the Chinese as an underclass obstructing the path to egalitarianism was as much a cultural as an economic perception. In China the state had been absolutely supreme for thousands of years. Rights of individuals meant nothing.
As Keith writes: "A community freeing itself from hereditary status and privilege met a community steeped in the servility of Oriental despotism." Notions of white supremacy did not enter into it.
Keith considers the depiction of racism as the dominant force in Australian history to be a concoction of the past 50 years, by historians sacrificing scholarly discipline to ideology.
Their relentless campaign to make Australians "shudder with vicarious guilt at the colonial past" -- Eric Richard's phrase -- has been politically debilitating.
It has enabled constant denigration as "racist" of reasoned argument against approved positions on multiculturalism, immigration, aboriginal affairs, foreign relations and more.
With his new book, Keith Windschuttle adds momentum to the comment of Emeritus Professor Claudio Veliz, of Boston University, when he launched Fabrication in 2002 : "It will change the course of Australia's intellectual history."
This is heroic work. May it continue.