The Return of Postmodernism in Aboriginal History
More specifically, Windschuttle has not provided any evidence for his imputation that academic historians have compared the British colonisation of this country to Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews or caused others to make such a comparison. This is a figment of his imagination.
— Bain Attwood, Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History, 2005, p 95
No Australian historian contends there was an Australian holocaust.
— Dirk Moses, The Australian, January 13 2003
For the foreseeable future, the fate of reconciliation will also rest on recognition of the severe historical impact the various dimensions of colonisation have had upon Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders — what can and should be called a holocaust given the scale of loss and the trauma that has been suffered.
— Bain Attwood, in Michelle Grattan ed., Reconciliation, 2000, p 258
* * *
I don't want to call it genocidal, but I'm not going to tidy it up either.
— Cassandra Pybus on the Tasmanian Aborigines, Sunday, Channel 9, May 25 2003
In the early nineteenth century, the Aboriginal people of Tasmania were all but wiped out, I mean it was one of the clearest cases of genocide that we know of and recognised as such at the time.
— Cassandra Pybus, Four Corners, ABC-TV, August 26 2002
* * *
Falsely accusing Australian historians of exaggerating claims of genocide and Holocaust in Australia in order to paint them as ideologically-driven is now common among history warriors.
— Dirk Moses, Online Opinion, 11 April 2005
Australia had many genocides, perhaps more than any other country.
— Dirk Moses, Journal of Genocide Research, 2000, p 93
* * *
In my opinion, genocide is neither a necessary nor a useful concept for the task of understanding the nature of the white colonisation of this country.
— Bain Attwood, Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History, 2005, p 92
the concept of genocide, I am suggesting, might still be useful to us in the historical task of imagining and so understanding the past of our forbears (and therefore, in time, it might have beneficial political outcomes).
— Bain Attwood, Aboriginal History, 2001, p 171 [his emphasis]
How to explain such contortions: short-term memory loss? incapacity to recognise self-contradiction? willful dishonesty to deflect criticism? a postmodernist ploy that allows words to mean whatever their users choose? all of the above?
For a while, it looked like the History Wars might have left postmodernism dead and buried. The debate over Aboriginal history has been largely conducted in the popular press and non-academic magazines, on television and in public debates in lecture theatres, arts festivals and trades halls. In such environments, it is difficult for postmodernist academics to get the hearing they would like.
Without going into all its permutations, postmodernism supports a relativist concept of truth, which claims different cultures and ethnicities have their own, equally valid versions of truth. Even though some of them might be quite incompatible with, or even contradict other truths, each culture is entitled to be confident of its own convictions.
This approach might go down well in the limited world of the academic seminar but it cuts little ice when it surfaces in open debate. In public, especially in the media or in an auditorium, those who argue for the relativism of truth, or for a multiplicity of truths, or any other dissembling variant, find audiences resistant to their counter-intuitive arguments and arcane language. Moreover, these arguments are easily ridiculed by opponents. Hence, in public, endorsing postmodernism is not a clever tactic.
This is why some of the higher profile players in the Aboriginal history debate have been at pains to emphasise they want nothing to do with it.
Robert Manne's anthology Whitewash, the attempted counter-attack to my Fabrication of Aboriginal History, contains an article by Greg Lehman of the University of Tasmania, who supports the cultural relativist position. Truth, Lehman says, is “a result of social negotiation, agreement achieved by participants in a particular conversation”. Aborigines have their own truths, which are different to white man's truths, says this person who calls himself an Aborigine but admits, without blushing, to an ancestry one sixty-fourth Aboriginal and sixty-three sixty-fourths European.
Although he commissioned Lehman's piece, Manne now wants to dissociate himself from it, especially after the damaging criticism of Lehman by John Dawson in Washout. With his customary charm, Manne in Australian Book Review calls Dawson's analysis “an ignorant and bilious anti-postmodernist rant”, but he is nonetheless at pains to emphasise how conventionally empirical his own collection is: “With the exception of Greg Lehmann,” Manne ticks off Dawson, “the authors assembled in Whitewash are completely, almost stubbornly, traditional.”
In The History Wars, Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark also defend an empirical methodology. They don't want anyone to think the current academic establishment houses political ideologues who can't be trusted. Only opponents like me write “strident polemics”. Academic historians, Macintyre assures his readers, insist on scrupulous scholarship:
First-year undergraduates are instructed in the rules of evidence: go back to the original source, report it accurately, document it fully. The same principles apply in advanced research, where the higher degree candidate is expected to provide exhaustive documentation and always verify it.
Similarly, Henry Reynolds defends empirical history from postmodern intellectuals and cultural relativists. In 2000, he wrote a paper criticising “the circling theoreticians” who regard academic history as epistemologically flawed. He supports traditional methodology, endorsing it as both scholarly impeccable and politically utilitarian. If truth is relativised, Reynolds argues, the victims and protestors of historical injustice are deprived of their last and often best weapon, “that of telling what really happened”.
Internationally, the theoretical Left now either politely dismisses postmodernism or attacks it openly. Anthony Appiah and Arif Dirlik call postmodernist authors “a comprador intelligentsia” and “the intelligentsia of global capitalism”. But even radicals like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, whose big seller Empire (2000) argues that postmodernism's anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism are well-meaning though ineffectual, still spurn its epistemological critique. Hardt and Negri echo Reynolds in arguing for the political utility of truth:
the concept of truth is not fluid or unstable — on the contrary! The truth is that this general ordered the torture and assassination of that union leader, and this colonel led the massacre of that village. Making public such truths is an exemplary Enlightenment project of modernist politics, and the critique of it in these contexts could only serve to aid the mystificatory and repressive powers of the regime under attack.
Even someone as insensitive as Dirk Moses can tell which way this wind is blowing. In June 2002, in a debate at the University of New South Wales over postmodernism in history, Moses was on the positive side (with Joy Damousi and Stephen Garton), while I was on the negative team (with Richard Evans and Behan McCullagh). Three years later, Moses has changed tack.
In Australian Book Review last November, writing about a new postmodernist combatant in the History Wars, Bain Attwood's Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History, Moses too was concerned about its impact on the public:
Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History is a missed opportunity to educate a wide readership about the nature and importance of empirical research. In its habitual invocation and lengthy, deferential quotation of (overwhelmingly male) ‘authorities', and the deployment of vague yet seemingly profound statements that lay readers won't understand, the book evinces a characteristically provincial combination of anxiety and overconfidence that does not answer the questions historians and the general public are asking about the research methods and public use of history.
The big problem in this debate for orthodox left-wing historians who rely on traditional empirical methods is the lack of evidence to give them a winning hand. Despite my opponents' claims to the contrary, the first volume of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History was an exhaustive study of all the relevant evidence on the frontier of Van Diemen's Land.
That evidence does not support claims of either genocide or frontier warfare in the colony. None of my critics have been able to come up with anything credible to show I am wrong. They are reduced to pinning their faith on speculation: the assumption of a frontier full of “unrecorded killings”.
It was quickly apparent that Whitewash had failed to deliver its promised killer blow. It's most extensive article by James Boyce, on whom editor Manne pinned so much hope, claimed I had overlooked a number of crucial private diaries and unofficial documents which told a story different to mine.
Yet, as John Dawson pointed out in Washout, no previous writer about the Aborigines in Van Diemen's Land had found the sources listed by Boyce contained anything worth reporting, not even Boyce himself in his own history of the Tasmanian Aborigines and the Anglican Church.
In Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History, Bain Attwood agrees this is true. “Boyce is unable to demonstrate that this work would have provided factual evidence of settler killings of Aborigines.”
This is why the debate became so acrimonious. Without the historical evidence in their favour, my opponents have been largely reduced to two tactics: character assassination and language games.
In going down this road, they have adopted methods that are more characteristic of the postmodernism they claim to reject than of traditional empirical debate where issues are largely decided on the facts, and where ad hominem abuse is the tactic of losers.
Postmodernism, however, makes all cultural perspectives legitimate, so no debate can ever be resolved and rival sides are largely reduced to analysing their opponents' political or psychological motives which, in effect, means calling one another names.
Either that, or playing language games. The latter tactic has a number of variants but often involves changing the common meaning of words to give them a special “academic” meaning that is less vulnerable to criticism.
For example, the common usage of the term “holocaust” in a historical context inextricably links it to the fate of the Jews in Germany. But when an academic historian depicts events in Australia as a holocaust, he can try to deflect accusations of over-dramatisation by claiming his own usage does not invoke the Nazi comparison. This is not an imaginary example. Bain Attwood made just such a case in a letter to The Australian on December 10-11 2005.
In this article, I want to show how the two postmodernist tactics of language games and character assassination have been deployed in this debate. I also want to point out some problems with Attwood's newest attempt to introduce a full-blown methodology of postmodernist cultural relativism to Aboriginal history.
Genocide and the Nazi comparison
Unless they have taken a course in Australian history, most people find it hard to believe that the comparatively benign and largely harmonious society they know as modern Australia harbors a dark, murderous past. While the use of the term genocide by Ronald Wilson's 1997 “stolen generations” report went down well with the anti-Howard intellectual Left, among the wider community, as Inga Clendinnen correctly observed, the accusation was a political disaster.
“When I see the word genocide,” Clendinnen wrote in 2001, “I still see Gypsies and Jews being herded into trains, into pits, into ravines … I see deliberate murder.” The use of this term to describe welfare policies for mixed-race children in the mid-twentieth century lacked credibility with most Australians and confirmed the popular suspicion that academic and Aboriginal activists were exploiting the past for self-serving political and monetary gains.
When The Fabrication of Aboriginal History was published in December 2002, the authors I criticised dug in, sticking to their original story. Lyndall Ryan publicly repeated her claim in The Aboriginal Tasmanians that her subjects had suffered “a conscious policy of genocide”. But there were other critics who realised they might not win a public debate with a concept so difficult to sell.
So Bain Attwood, followed quickly by Dirk Moses, devised a novel approach. In articles written for the press, they denied there was an academic orthodoxy about large-scale violence in the Australian colonies. Instead, they tried to discredit me for beating up the issue. In The Australian in January 2003, Attwood charged:
Windschuttle similarly argues that I am one of “the supporters of the genocide thesis”. Like many of the inflammatory claims Windschuttle makes about contemporary academic historical practice, he provides no evidence for this. I have never argued that any of the Australian colonies pursued a policy of genocide on the frontier.
A few days later, Moses chipped in: “Windschuttle has misrepresented specialist academic historian's work and failed to back up with evidence his claims regarding the historiography of genocide.”
Respectable scholars, Attwood said, never deployed the term genocide in the way I claimed. He writes in Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History that by the early 1990s new research had moderated the account of the frontier produced by earlier, more radical historians. “A new consensus had emerged in academic historiography: much confrontation and conflict had occurred between Aborigines and settlers, but a fair amount of sharing and accommodation had also taken place.”
I am simply repeating the same conclusion, he says, but claiming it as my own discovery, while at the same time damning historians for a position they do not hold. In the press he declared:
This is no expose, as he and his supporters claim. It's just old news from a tabloid historian. Only those ignorant of the academic historiography — or unwilling to go and read it — could believe otherwise.
Attwood must have held his breath when he wrote this, hoping that if he brazened it out, readers would take him at his word. But anyone who does check the academic literature will quickly find what he said was transparently untrue.
The quotations that start this article show Attwood himself arguing in 2000 that, rather than a process of sharing and accommodation, the colonisation of Australia was a holocaust for Aboriginal people. And in 2001 he wrote that the concept of genocide could not only be useful for understanding Australia 's past, it could also be politically expedient.
Attwood is by no means the only academic historian to have endorsed the genocide thesis in the last five years. His Aboriginal History article in 2001 was one of ten commissioned for a special “genocide” edition of that academic journal, edited by Ann Curthoys and John Docker.
In their introduction, Curthoys and Docker argued that European colonialism was an even more intrinsically genocidal process than that of Nazi Germany. Using evidence put forward by the American academic Ward Churchill, Curthoys and Docker argue that England was the most “overtly genocidal” of the European colonial powers.
Moreover, they assert, “settler-colonies around the world established during European expansion post-1492 in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina are not only potentially but inherently genocidal.” [their emphasis]
Indeed, in September 2002, just four months before Attwood was assuring readers of The Australian that there was little academic advocacy of genocide in Australia, Curthoys and Docker were interviewed in Australian Humanities Review about the journal they edited.
So we felt pleased that relating genocide to settler-colonialism was what our contributors were doing in Aboriginal History … for me the debate has not been so much about the ‘uniqueness' of the Holocaust, though I am aware of that debate, as about finding a way to understand Australian settlement history in a way that places it carefully within a larger history of colonisation and genocidal desire and practice.
In a more recent anthology, Genocide and Settler Society, Dirk Moses takes a similar line. Genocide is something inherent or built into settler societies like Australia. Moses writes:
I am not suggesting that the entirety of Australian history can be reduced to genocide. (No one suggests that studying the Holocaust reduces German history to Nazi genocide.) But neither is it possible to regard the country's genocidal moments in the manner of an industrial accident. They are not contingencies, attributable to misguided or wicked men, but intrinsic to the deep structure of settler society.
In other words, instead of academics playing down the level of violence and avoiding talk of genocide, the opposite is the case. Their most recent contributions to this debate want to inflate rather than minimise the notion. They want us to believe that genocide is not just a contingent fact about Australian history, but an intrinsic one. Whatever the empirical evidence might or might not reveal, genocide is therefore true by definition.
Despite his protestations to the contrary, Attwood's writings show him plainly a member of the same camp. In his 2001 article in Aboriginal History, Attwood applies the term genocide to the stolen children debate. He says “to consider seriously the question of genocide in relation to the removal of Aboriginal children, we can only do so by exploring the broader historical circumstances in which it occurred.”
He goes on to endorse what he calls “an important essay” written in 1987 by Tony Barta of La Trobe University: “he [Barta] urges an approach to genocide that replaces the conceptual emphasis upon intention (or purpose, motive, policy or planning), particularly those of individuals but also of the state, with one that focuses upon ‘sets of relationships' in any given society.”
Attwood then presents an analysis (page 170) describing the relationships that held sway in Australia and were manifest in Aboriginal children's policy for the first fifty years of the twentieth century. After this passage he asks whether it is helpful to consider this as genocide. His conclusion is that, despite Inga Clendinnen's verdict that the charge has been a political disaster, “the concept of genocide, I am suggesting, might still be useful to us in the historical task of imagining and so understanding the past of our forbears (and therefore, in time, might have beneficial political outcomes)”.
What Attwood is supporting here is an approach to genocide that is a radical expansion of its original meaning.
Like murder, genocide was originally regarded as a crime of intent. The inadvertent killing of members of an ethnic group, by disease or as a by-product of warfare with other objectives, was not defined as genocide. In common usage, that still holds true. The United Nations Convention on Genocide itself insists on demonstrable intent.
The article by Tony Barta which Attwood admires is quite explicit about its aims. In colonial Australia, the critical issue in defining genocide was not the government's intention towards the Aborigines but, according to Barta, the relations between black and white involved in the appropriation of land. This meant that in Australia “implicitly rather than explicitly, in ways which were inevitable rather than intentional, it is a relationship of genocide”.
Hence Barta and Attwood want to change the original concept so that they can use their own historical interpretations — their own versions of the prevailing “sets of relationships” in the past — to apply the label genocide to historical events not previously regarded as such.
Thus genocide would become a finding no longer subject to the fairly clear test of the policies, motives and objectives of its perpetrators. It would be defined into existence by academic historians who themselves determine what sets of relationships are appropriate. All of this is cynically designed to produce “beneficial political outcomes”.
Hence, Attwood's genocide denialism is duplicitous. For the purposes of public debate in the press he pretends to reject the genocide thesis, but in the confines of the academic literature he is one of its most radical interpreters.
The same duplicity is on display in Attwood's discussion of Lyndall Ryan's statement that the Tasmanian Aborigines had suffered “a conscious policy of genocide”. She wrote this in the first edition of Aboriginal Tasmanians in 1981 and left it intact in her 1996 revised edition. Her statement contradicts Attwood's claims about an academic consensus against frontier genocide.
His response is to claim that Ryan wasn't referring to the conflict in colonial Van Diemen's Land, but to post-World War II assimilation policies which, he says, amounted to “cultural genocide”. He accuses me of taking her words out of context and misleading readers.
Two comments are in order here. First, the proposition that assimilation equals genocide, and the entirely dubious category of cultural genocide itself, are two of the predictable outcomes when left-wing historians get to define the “sets of relationships” involved.
Second, contrary to Attwood's claim, most people who read Ryan's phrase in context — they are the last four words of her book's historical chapters — will see she is not just referring to the recent past but is summarising her overall case about colonial Van Diemen's Land.
Anyway, Ryan herself has now twice confirmed publicly my interpretation of her words. In The Australian (December 17, 2002) she acknowledged her book “asserts that the Tasmanian Aborigines did indeed constitute a threat to British settlers, that the Black War was a ‘conscious policy of genocide', though not in the end a successful one, as the Aborigines survived.”
Poor Attwood can't accept that Ryan knows what she means better than he does. He says of this response that it was “evident to those familiar with Ryan's Aboriginal Tasmanians that she had now formulated an argument she had not made in that 1981 study”. Yet in the Channel Nine program Sunday in May 2003, Ryan reasserted her case:
LYNDALL RYAN: I think if you go back to the sources and to the dispatches that Governor Arthur was writing back to England, he, himself, is aware that the government was, in the end, carrying out what I think Governor Arthur called the extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines. He didn't want it to happen, but he could see that was what the outcome of his policy was.
HELEN DALLEY: So you call that genocide because you're saying there was some political intent to exterminate them?
LYNDALL RYAN: The policy was — the outcome of the policy was that. The numbers of settlers being killed are increasing, so he's got to do something about it. So eventually the Governor, the government, does institute policies which must end in the deaths of the Aborigines. Governor Arthur realised there were not a lot of Aborigines left and he was concerned that it would end up with them all being killed, and that's largely, in the end, what happened.
Both Ryan's television interview and her newspaper article flatly contradict Attwood's assertions about her views in Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History.
Attwood is similarly deceptive about my discussion of Henry Reynolds's position on genocide in Tasmania. According to Attwood's book, I fail to realize or refuse to acknowledge that Reynolds denies the colonial government intended to exterminate the Aborigines.
Yet I say twice in Fabrication and once in a conference paper published in the book Frontier Conflict, edited by Attwood himself, that although Reynolds accused the Tasmanian settlers of wanting to exterminate the Aborigines, he acquitted their government of genocide. Indeed, on page 296 of Fabrication I quote the very same sentence to that effect from Reynolds's book, Fate of a Free People, which Attwood reproduces himself. Anyone who follows this debate closely will see that Attwood can't be trusted to put my case honestly.
The same audacity is on display when both Attwood and Moses deny my contention that Australian academics make exaggerated claims about genocide. Their tactic is to say that the people I quote are not real historians and that academics are not responsible for what journalists and others write.
In Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History, Attwood accuses me of repeatedly conflating popular and academic writers on the subject. This was a claim he originally made in The Australian in 2003:
Likewise, among academic historians there is no “orthodox interpretation that a policy of genocide existed in colonial Tasmania,” as one journalist has claimed. This is a fallacy peddled by Windschuttle, who confuses specialist academic scholarship in the sub-discipline of Aboriginal history with the writings of non-specialist historians, journalists and other writers.
Similarly, Moses argues in Genocide and Settler Society:
Journalists and popular writers made use of this ‘revisionist' scholarship for moral-political purposes … they occasionally made wild analogies with Nazi genocide … Scholars, by contrast, have been very circumspect, occasionally drawing some links or parallels between German and Australia [sic] history, but without crudely equating the two cases.
But I have demonstrated, chapter and verse, that the most influential journalists and other popular writers in this field have taken their information direct from academic sources. In Quadrant, September 2000, I showed that the facts behind journalist Phillip Knightley's infamous comparison between the Australian colonies and Nazi Germany came straight from the Oxford Companion to Australian History and the writings of Henry Reynolds. Art critic Robert Hughes's internationally notorious statement that Tasmania housed “the only true genocide in English colonial history” derives from the work of three Australian academics: Lloyd Robson, Rhys Jones and Lyndall Ryan.
Moreover, despite Attwood's claims of a consensus among historians in the early 1990s about a comparatively non-violent colonial frontier, there are many academic historians — as well as himself — who still insist colonial Australia was a site of genocide.
In 2001 Raymond Evans of the University of Queensland and Bill Thorpe of Flinders University used the journal Overland to argue against my “massacre myth” series in Quadrant the year before. Their verdict on colonial history was, yes, it was genocide but, no, it was not an Australian Holocaust because the state did not sanction the bloodshed.
In 2005 David Day of La Trobe University, in his book Conquest: A New History of the Modern World, said that although Governor Arthur did not approve, “he could not prevent the genocide that unfolded across the island as its fertile valleys were taken up for farming”. The principal source Day quotes for this conclusion is Reynolds's book about Tasmania, Fate of a Free People.
An article in a book edited by Attwood himself repeats the same finding. In Frontier Conflict, Ann Curthoys draws the following conclusion about colonial Tasmania: “Genocide had taken place, but it had not been complete.”
Other academics employed in political science and cultural studies have used both primary and secondary historical sources to advance the genocide thesis about Australia. Alison Palmer of the University of East London in 2000 wrote Colonial Genocide, indicting Queensland of the crime. In Genocide in Australia in 1999, Colin Tatz of Macquarie University accused Australia of having committed not one but four kinds of genocide against the Aborigines: deliberate killing, stealing children, controlled breeding, and the policy of protection.
Despite the denials by Attwood and Moses, academic historians have made overt and direct comparisons between Australia and Nazi Germany. Indeed, it is one of the most common comparisons made in this debate. For instance, Tony Barta wrote in the journal Aboriginal History in 2001:
Here is the plainest link between German and Australian incitements to genocide. The threat of the Other was not in any particular action, or even in any particular vice. Their vice was in being as they were; their being was their vice. Therefore their being had to be eradicated, as one eradicates a pest. In Australia, the frontier encounters of the nineteenth century and (rather less openly) in the first decades of the twentieth, eradication meant starving, shooting, poisoning, and simply observing the spread of disease. In Germany, it could mean starving, shooting and poisoning (often with the pretext of preventing the spread of disease) before the arrival of total war in the mid-twentieth century. In both countries the discourse of genocide enabled the majority of the population in whose name the genocide was being carried out to ignore the implications or to acquiesce.
It is hard to imagine how more direct a historical comparison could be. Similarly, here is Andrew Markus of Monash University, writing in the same edition of the same journal:
Australian and German governments envisaged a time when the state would be free of the despised racial ‘other'. The basis of policy was the definition of Aboriginal and Jewish people in pseudo-racial terms, in terms of the ‘race' of grandparents and in both cases categories of mixed descent (half-caste, quarter-caste, quadroon, Mischlinge of the first and second degrees) were established in law, with significant legal consequences.
In an article published in 2002 entitled “Conceptual blockages and definitional dilemmas in the ‘racial century': genocides of indigenous peoples and the Holocaust”, none other than Dirk Moses agued that “colonial genocides”, including that of Australia, were part of a single process of accelerating violence that began in the European colonies and culminated in the program to exterminate the Jews in the 1940s. Moses writes:
The proposition I should like to advance is that the hundred years roughly following 1850 can be conceptualised as the “racial century” whose most basic feature was competition between rival projects of nation-building and “people-making” (that is, fashioning of ethnically homogenous populations domestically) that culminated in the Holocaust of European Jewry and other racial minorities in the 1940s. Such an approach links the genocides that occurred in the European colonies with the intra-European population politics of the inter-war and war years.
In Aboriginal History, 2001, Anna Haebich of Griffith University compares the Australian public's attitudes towards Aborigines to the German civilians who Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler's Willing Executioners accuses of complicity in the Holocaust. Haebich writes:
Like the concentration camps in Germany, the [ Carrolup, WA ] settlement became part of the local landscape, linked to the town through its reliance on the service of police, doctors, employers and businesses and the townspeople's prurient interest in the events there…
This list would be remiss if it did not include a contribution from Attwood himself. As noted above, he protested in The Australian last December that when he had written in 2000 that the Aborigines had suffered a “holocaust” he was not equating that with the Jewish Holocaust. Alas, Attwood was not being open with the newspaper's readers. In the original article, published in Michelle Grattan's compilation Reconciliation, he says the Aboriginal holocaust was the kind that demands reparation [his emphasis]. Chiding Australia 's insensitivity to this obligation, he sarcastically observes: “Isn't it odd that this term is seldom heard here yet is commonly used in the context of the German state and the Jewish Holocaust?”
So, when Attwood says academic historians do not compare Australian colonisation to Nazi Germany, the last thing he is doing is telling the truth about Aboriginal history. Indeed, not only do these historians make the comparison directly and often, some actually believe that, of the two, Australia is the more morally culpable.
What sort of ethical universe do the people who write like this inhabit? As I noted earlier, the assertion by Ann Curthoys and John Docker that Australia was more intrinsically genocidal than Nazi Germany was based on an analysis of British colonialism by Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado. Churchill is also treated as a citable authority by three separate authors in Dirk Moses's anthology Genocide and Settler Society. Moses reverently describes Churchill as “a Native American activist and scholar.”
Their confidence in this person is revealing. In early 2005 Churchill briefly became America 's most reviled university teacher for declaring that those who died in New York 's World Trade Centre on September 11 2001 had deserved their fate. Churchill wrote:
If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it.
At the same time, Churchill, who Curthoys and Docker also describe as a “Native American historian”, was exposed by real American Indians as a fake. The American Indian Grand Governing Council said “Ward Churchill has fraudulently represented himself as an Indian, and a member of the American Indian Movement and … has been masquerading as an Indian for years behind his dark glasses and beaded headband.”
More importantly, a University of New Mexico specialist in Indian law, John Lavelle, accused Churchill of fabricating evidence in no less than six books and eleven published academic articles.
That the work of such a moral bankrupt and scholarly charlatan could be paraded as weighty commentary by the editors of Australia 's leading journal in Aboriginal history is a good indication of what an intellectual shambles this subject has become.
Left-wing academic McCarthyism
In the Australian case, the extremism of statements by Brunton, Morgan and Windschuttle suggests that this analysis should be extended by asking whether such figures experience castration anxiety, that is, a fantasised danger to their genitals symbolised by the national ideal that makes them feel powerful and good about themselves.
— Dirk Moses, Aboriginal History, 2001, p 102
The suggestion that I and other critics of Aboriginal historiography are fearful for our genitals is probably the nadir of a long and grubby line of commentary in defence of the historical orthodoxy.
Indeed, Moses's statement probably ranks as the sleaziest ever made in any debate over Australian history. There is not the remotest justification for it, since neither I nor the others he mentions have stooped to remarks of that kind. Nor could its author's plodding turn of phrase be justified as witty, stylish or amusing. It is sheer personal abuse, whose only potential insight is into its author's own fixations.
The statement is from a peer-reviewed academic journal and it tells much about the standards prevailing not only in that particular journal but in the academic infrastructure that supports it. For the comment must have been acceptable not only to its author but to the anonymous referees, presumably historians, who approved it, as well as to the editors, Curthoys and Docker, who commissioned Moses's piece and published it.
If there was any objection from the chair of the journal's editorial board, Peter Read of ANU, or from any of the journal's twenty-one other board members, most of them publicly-employed academics, it has yet to surface.
As well as personal insults, this debate has attracted political accusations that range from hackneyed to vicious. I am routinely either denounced outright as a “Howard intellectual” or my work is placed within the context of the Prime Minister's attempts to reassert a positive national history.
This is despite the fact that my critics are well aware that throughout the 1990s I took the opposite stance to Howard about Aboriginal history. My book The Killing of History, published in 1994 and last revised in early 2000, described Henry Reynolds as one of Australia's “most revered” historians and Charles Rowley's The Destruction of Aboriginal Society as one of the great works of Australian historiography.
My views only changed later in 2000 when I started to do some primary research of my own and found the field was riddled with exaggerations, misuse of evidence and outright inventions.
Several critics have tried to use the radicalism of my student days to brand me an extremist. In the Robert Manne anthology, Whitewash, Dirk Moses claims that in my youth I was a “fanatical communist”. In his book In Tasmania, Nicholas Shakespeare says I was once a Trotskyist.
Bain Attwood has spent a lot of time, and a good deal of university money, in an obsessive pursuit of my past. He has gone through all my student journalism of the 1960s and 1970s and has searched ASIO files in the National Archives of Australia looking for dirt on me. For this project, he had two research assistants and funding from the School of Historical Studies at Monash University.
Unfortunately for Attwood, neither ASIO nor the NSW Special Branch thought me of sufficient interest to warrant a dedicated file. Attwood found an ASIO agent briefly mentioned me speaking at two anti-Vietnam war meetings in February 1971, but that is all. Moreover, these reports seem inaccurate to me but I am unable to check the authenticity of Attwood's transcription since the National Archives internet address he provides as his source contains only blank pages. In this little exercise in left-wing McCarthyism, Attwood is largely reduced to quoting slogans from articles written by others in student publications which I edited or contributed to.
For the record, I was never a member of the Communist Party or of any of the factions — Leninist, Stalinist, Trotskyist, Maoist or whatever — that emerged from the Russian and Chinese revolutions. Indeed, in my student days I was attracted to the 1960s American New Left precisely because it seemed a form of radicalism uncompromised by the old, discredited pro-Bolshevik factions.
But as the 1970s unfolded, the New Left, too, reverted to type. When it descended into a morass of violence -- with the Black Panthers, Weathermen, Baader-Meinhoff gang, Red Brigades and the Symbionese Liberation Army practicing armed robbery, kidnapping and murder -- it ended any romanticism I had about the Left.
The biggest issue among student radicals at the time was the Vietnam War and the biggest mistake we made, though few will admit it even today, was to believe the war was a genuinely nationalist movement to liberate the Vietnamese people from French and American imperialism, rather than what it actually was, a war of communist expansion throughout South-East Asia. The other big issue was the campaign against apartheid in South Africa, a cause I still think was right.
The Marxist theory to which I subscribed in the 1960s and 1970s was far more about history than politics, and came straight from Edward Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, a beguiling book that seduced many of my generation (as well as suggesting the title for Attwood's own much later work The Making of the Aborigines ). Thompson launched social history, or history from below, and defended English empiricism, both of which I supported enthusiastically.
When Louis Althusser's ultra-theoretical, Stalinist version of French Marxism subsequently became the vogue in left-wing academic circles in the mid-1970s, I was a vocal and argumentative critic. As my 1984 book The Media testifies, I also rejected the other fashionable academic Marxisms of the time, that of the Frankfurt School and the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies.
I joined the Australian Labor Party in 1969 and remained a member until 1991. No one who knew me during that time would have called me a communist. Although I had Trotskyist friends, none of them would have called me a Trotskyist either. Hall Greenland once called me a civilised Whitlamite, a reproach for being Left but not Left enough.
The most brazen inventor of my past is Robert Manne, who in his desperation to prevail in this debate has abandoned all scruples. In his collections Whitewash and Left Right Left, he claims I was once an enthusiast for Pol Pot. Never in my life have I written or spoken a word in favour of Pol Pot. Despite my public challenge, Manne has never been able to produce any evidence to back his charge. As Manne knows, my only connection to Cambodia 's killing fields was that an academic friend was murdered by Pol Pot in Phnom Penh in 1978.
Not content with personal abuse and political smears, my critics have also waged a campaign against my professional credentials. In an opinion piece in The Australian in January 2003, Dirk Moses claimed I had no credibility as a historian because I was “a freelance writer with no postgraduate training in the discipline”.
Yet again, this is false. I won a Commonwealth postgraduate scholarship to the Department of History at the University of Sydney, the same place where Moses is employed now. I was a postgraduate student there from 1970–75.
At the time, the department required postgraduate students to undertake a program in historical methodology under the tutorship of Professor John M. Ward. I fulfilled all the coursework requirements and gave the obligatory seminar papers.
In the end, though, after being appointed to a full-time lecturing position, I decided to switch my candidacy from history to politics and took an MA Honours, a research degree, from Macquarie University for a 100,000-word thesis on unemployment in Australia. Incidentally, the first sentence of its introduction, which was published by Penguin Books in 1979 under the title Unemployment, proclaimed its principal methodology: “this book is a social history”.
Bain Attwood employs the same tactics in Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History. To try and write me out of this debate, he gives a misleading version of my employment record, noting that my first academic appointment was as a tutor in the School of History at the University of New South Wales in 1973–74, but then claiming “he never worked in a university department or school of history again”.
This is misrepresentation by omission because he fails to record I had a full-time appointment as lecturer in Australian history, as well as in journalism, from 1977 to 1981 at the New South Wales Institute of Technology. This was a degree-awarding college of advanced education whose Department of Humanities and Social Sciences housed a modest but respectable Australian history program also taught by other historians, Ann Curthoys and Stephen Hooper. It subsequently became the University of Technology Sydney. Attwood also neglects to record that as lecturer in social policy from 1983 to 1990 at the University of New South Wales I taught a largely historical program.
It is telling that those who disparage my credentials never apply the same test to my critics. Double standards abound. For instance, Robert Manne could buy into the Aboriginal history debate not only without a PhD in history but with no postgraduate qualification of any kind. He has two bachelor degrees. Yet no one in this debate has ever said he is unqualified to speak on the subject.
In any case, the idea that only those with formal academic credentials or those currently employed by universities are real historians, and only those specialising in Aboriginal history are reliable commentators on that particular subject, is wishful thinking. Universities are one place to do history but far from the only one. Many of the profession's best practitioners, certainly in the UK and USA where successful authors can live on their royalties, now avoid universities with their paltry salaries and inexorable administrative trivia.
In Australia, Beverley Kingston, herself a long-time member of the School of History at the University of New South Wales, observes in Stuart Macintyre's collection The Historian's Conscience: “There is nothing very special about history or mysterious about how it is done … Some of our best history has been written by journalists or by passionate enthusiasts.”
This is true. One of Australia 's best living historians is Eric Rolls, who spent most of his working life as a farmer in western New South Wales. In Tasmania, almost everyone acknowledges the most impressive scholar of Aboriginal history is the late Brian Plomley, who had a postgraduate degree in biology, no history training and no academic position in history.
Attwood's attempts to exclude me from debate are not confined to my writings on Aboriginal history. He also wants to dismiss my 1994 critique of postmodernist historiography, The Killing of History. That book attracted considerable attention in the United States, where it sold more than 25,000 copies in both hardcover and paperback, and went through four separate editions.
Attwood tells his readers it was a work of no consequence: “it has been more or less damned by leading historiographers in the United States ”.
This is not true. While the book did receive some predictably hostile reviews from postmodernist historians -- especially from one of Attwood's heroes, Dominick LaCapra -- it was welcomed by Georg Iggers, then America's most senior and best-known historiographer. Iggers invited me to speak at an international conference in 1999 and included a paper of mine in the anthology Turning Points in Historiography which he and Edward Wang edited in 2002. (The full text is on my website, as Atwood well knows.)
In fact, The Killing of History did so well in the US that between 1996 and 2001 I made regular lecture tours of American universities to speak on historiography. The last of these was organised and sponsored by The Historical Society, America 's newest professional association of university-based historians. My website reproduces several of my US lectures and seminar papers and lists eleven American universities where I have spoken, including Princeton, NYU, Boston, Chicago and Duke.
In the UK, in Times Literary Supplement's annual survey of its reviewers in 1997, Hugh Lloyd-Jones, one of Britain's great classicists and long-time Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, listed The Killing of History as one of the two best books of the year. How many other Australian history books have made that list?
The prize for the most obtuse remark in this debate is fiercely contested but my award goes to Sydney Morning Herald journalist Jane Cadzow for an observation about me in May 2003. She said that because I had two dogs, one black and one white, this revealed I thought in black and white terms.
Attwood not only repeats this dim-witted deduction but devotes a full page in Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History to a photo of the dogs and me from Cadzow's article. I'll admit that if I owned a pair of Pit Bulls it might reveal something of my character, but not a Scottie and a Westie. Pace Cadzow, the dogs belong not to me but to our family, and were originally birthday presents to our children. They are not my muses. I am just their walker.
Attwood's version of the politics of the founding authors of this academic orthodoxy is even more fanciful. He says that despite my branding them as leftists, they were not into radical politics. “Few of the historians in the field of Aboriginal history were of the left of the 1960s,” he asserts. “Reynolds, for example, was never on the left”.
Instead, Attwood accuses me of projecting my own student radicalism onto those I am criticising in order to create a straw man I can then use to demonise academic historians.
Attwood must know this is false, since he has read Reynolds's autobiographical book Why Weren't We Told? where the author gives the following account of his and his wife's politics in 1966 and 1967, soon after he took a job with Townsville University College (later James Cook University ).
In Townsville we became activists. Our first cause was the Vietnam War … Margaret and I joined the local anti-war Peace Committee, which brought together radical clergymen and members of the small but influential Communist Party … This did not endear us to many at the college, nor did the company we kept or the causes we espoused… Our involvement with radical politics, our association with the communists, was seen as letting the side down and undermining the standing of the college.
Other prominent founders of what became the new Aboriginal historiography had even more impeccable left-wing connections. Lyndall Ryan was a member of a well-known Marxist family. As Stuart Macintyre records in The Reds, Lyndall's parents, Jack and Edna Ryan, were prominent members of the Communist and Trotskyist political movements from the 1920s to the 1940s.
Ann Curthoys was another red diaper baby, as she has written herself more than once. Before the Soviet regime fell, it rewarded her academic father Geoff Curthoys with a holiday on the Black Sea for fifty years of service to communism. Ann was one of the University of Sydney activists who went on the famous 1965 freedom ride to Aboriginal settlements in rural New South Wales. In her book on the subject, she writes that so many of the students on the bus were Communist Party members that organisers were worried if the media found out the event would be “written off as a communist plot”.
Bob Reece was also a Sixties student radical, or at least he gave that impression when I knew him in Sydney as a postgraduate student working on Aboriginal history. In September 1967, when I was editor of Honi Soit, Reece wrote an article for us supporting the student protestors engaged in what he called the “Brisbane Revolution”.
Meanwhile, at the University of Queensland, Raymond Evans and Kay Saunders described the mood in 1973 and 1974 when they wrote the first edition of their book Race Relations in Colonial Queensland:
Our concerns as historians were formed as much by our social experiences and political commitments as by the documents we researched … It was not only those days spent diligently working at the Queensland State Archives or the Fryer Memorial Library which shaped our intellectual perceptions. There were also other, angrier days spent in protesting against military conscription, the Vietnam war and apartheid; as well as those measureless times of debate on human liberation, women's rights or class oppression.
One could go on and on. In the 1970s, Tim Rowse was an Althusserian Marxist. Humphrey McQueen embedded his Maoist politics in almost everything he wrote. In his preface to the 1977 book The Black Resistance by two of his political comrades, Fergus Robinson and Barry York, McQueen said the story of Aboriginal resistance was “as magnificent in their particular way as was the Long March of the Chinese Communists”.
The milieu of left-wing politics that spawned the writing of Aboriginal history in this period is so well known to everyone involved that it makes you wonder who Attwood thinks he is writing for. While his academic peers will no doubt be glad to see him trying to put the boot into me, they will also be concerned that so much of what he says is not only wrong but easily proven to be wrong.
Postmodernism and “true histories”
Nothing appears as ridiculous as an obsolete orthodoxy.
— Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars, 2003, p 35
Attwood's colleagues will be even more concerned, though, about his continued advocacy of postmodernism.
Attwood is a New Zealand immigrant who came to Australia as a postgraduate student in the early 1980s. He decided to make a living writing and teaching about the Aborigines. He created an academic niche for himself by applying postmodernist and poststructuralist theory to Aboriginal history. Ann Curthoys writes in The Oxford Companion to Australian History:
Bain Attwood's work registered something of a shift from Marxist to post-structuralist approaches from the late 1980s … In the collection Power, Knowledge and Aborigines (1992), Attwood's introduction applied the insights of Foucault and Said to Aboriginal history, with an emphasis on the ways European Australians ‘know' ‘Aborigines', and produce historically and culturally specific discourses of their own. [her scare quotes]
The final three chapters of Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History constitute an endorsement of a postmodern approach to Aboriginal history. Attwood relies most upon the work of the French historical theorist Michel de Certeau; the Indian-American postcolonial literary theorist Homi Bhaba; and the American postmodernist historian Dominic LaCapra.
Attwood is a critic of historical realism, which he says implies that historians have direct access to the past. This view is based on “an assumption that there is a correspondence or mimetic relationship between the actual past and history as represented by texts”. Historians who believe this suffer from what he calls the referential illusion, which holds that “the past is indexed or mirrored by historical texts and so implies that the historian can re-enter the past and grasp it in an unmediated fashion”.
Most importantly, Attwood asserts, history is “the result of a dialogue between past and present, present and past, an exchange between the texted past and the historian (as well as between those historians who inquire into it), a fusion of the horizons of the past and the present.”
So, the essence of history is that it is a process of “understanding the past in the present”. If we approach it this way, he says, we can see that conventional history is not the only means to historical knowledge. “It is now more apparent than ever,” Attwood writes, “that history, and particularly academic history, is only one way of understanding the past in the present.”
In Australian history, he acknowledges that the documentary evidence of a violent frontier is thin on the ground. As I noted above, he admits that Whitewash, and in particular its longest essay by James Boyce, fails to find any more credible evidence about violent conflict in Tasmania than I found.
Of frontier historians generally, Attwood concedes: “Most importantly, ‘revisionist' critics have demonstrated that these academic historians lacked documentation for most of the killings represented in their accounts.”
Rather than take this as an indication that either (i) there is insufficient evidence to convict the Australian frontier of very much violence, or (ii) the Australian frontier was not actually a very violent place, Attwood argues that the fault lies with conventional historical methodology: “the approach of historical realism is not equal to the task of representing this past.”
Instead, he wants to use the memories of people he defines as traumatised victims to paint the place as bloody as possible.
Although white academic historians might have difficulty sustaining a genocide thesis, Aboriginal people can still do this, he says, despite the lack of acceptable scholarly evidence. “… many Aboriginal people believe that ‘genocide' is an appropriate word for remembering their historical experience. It amounts to a truthful myth, and they tell the story in this manner.” [his emphases]
Aborigines, he argues, have bona fide insight into the past because they are among those peoples who have suffered most. In particular, because they have been victims of trauma, they have a special insight denied to others who study the past only through documents.
Those peoples of the world who are traumatised victims have their memories, which, Attwood says, are “something other than factual or documentary knowledge” but which have their own veracity. Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History says “memories — like dreams — tend to reveal hidden preoccupations in highly condensed symbols”:
In many quarters, memory has come to be associated with testimony, and this has become a critically important way in which we relate to the events of our time. This is most evident when it is associated with trauma, a phenomenon that has come to acquire enormous significance in recent years. In much contemporary culture, people who have witnessed a traumatic event, or can claim a relationship to one, have been given a particular kind of legitimacy… Together, trauma, memory and testimony privilege those who ostensibly tell it how it was, especially where they are regarded as victims rather than perpetrators or bystanders. These narratives might best be described as “affective histories” (to use a term coined by Homi Bhabha). They, rather than the contemporary historical record, are deemed by many to be the authentic voice of the past or the authoritative bearers of the truth about history.
Although he talks here as if the traumatised victims are the authentic voice of the past, in other passages of his book Attwood sees them as truth-tellers who are different from, but equal to, academic historians. Moreover, he thinks that it is possible that a proper, Aboriginal-centred history of the frontier would emerge if history-makers were to combine the two genres of “affective history” and academic history.
In making this case, there is one conspicuous issue Attwood fails to address. Apart from Aborigines suffering what he calls trauma and remembering it in highly condensed symbols like dreams, why should anyone, including other Aborigines, trust what they say?
What if they make things up, or tell lies, or worse yet, derive their knowledge of the past not from Aboriginal traditions but from history books written by white Australians? Attwood uses very few examples to illustrate his thesis but when he does, its difficulties stand out starkly. He writes:
In the case of Tasmania, the Aboriginal spokesperson Jim Everett has asserted that a “colonial holocaust” occurred there, while another leader, Michael Mansell, has claimed more generally that: “The British had more impact on Aborigines than the Holocaust had on the Jews.”
The problem with proposing Tasmanian Aboriginal people today as authoritative bearers of the truth about the past is their lack of any direct connection with that past. Tasmanian Aboriginal culture ceased to exist long ago. As Brian Plomley writes in his history of the Flinders Island settlement, Weep in Silence:
As a result of this [British] invasion, the Tasmanian Aborigines ceased to exist as a natural society, and their numbers were reduced within three-quarters of a century to a few individuals of mixed blood, the majority of whom had formed a special community on the Furneaux Islands. All these people of mixed blood lost most of their original Aboriginal culture.
This has long been confirmed by the mixed blood descendants themselves. When interviewed for Rhys Jones's 1978 film The Last Tasmanian, these Bass Strait islanders (from whom both Jim Everitt and Michael Mansell are descended) denied they were Aborigines.
They knew that their antecedents had been English sealers and their Tasmanian Aboriginal wives, but they called themselves “straitsmen” and “islanders” and regarded themselves as neither European nor Aboriginal. One of the women of the Mansell family declared in the film: “I'm not an Aborigine … There are no Aborigines now.”
Patsy Adam-Smith's 1965 book about the islanders, Moonbird People, confirmed this. Not only were there no Aborigines left, there were no Aboriginal stories or memories from the frontier period passed down to the present generation.
In other words, the ideas of both Jim Everitt and Michael Mansell about the fate of the Tasmanian Aborigines must have come from somewhere other than Aboriginal culture and tradition.
Indeed, it is perfectly obvious to everyone but Attwood that they learnt what they know about the subject from history books by non-Aboriginal authors. Moreover, from the same sources they picked up the most politically exploitable point, the comparison between colonial Tasmania and the Holocaust, despite Attwood's assurances that in academic history there is no such connection.
Tasmania is far from being the only place where this is a problem. The great majority of those on mainland Australia who identify as Aborigines today are far removed in both time and genealogy from pre-European Aboriginal society.
More than 70 per cent live in what the census defines as major urban or other urban areas. More than half of Australia 's Aborigines are married to or cohabit with a non-Aboriginal person. In urban areas among the young, that figure rises to ninety per cent. Most are between one and two centuries removed from the colonial frontier.
It is this sociological group that has produced almost all the Aboriginal activists who now join white academics in making confident pronouncements about colonial history and its purported tales of genocide. But like Everitt and Mansell, they too learnt what they know about this history not at the feet of tribal elders but at university where they read it in the work of post-1960s white historians.
In Northern Australia, where traditional Aboriginal culture does survive intact in some communities, Attwood's case is also on dubious ground but for different reasons.
Attwood discusses Aboriginal oral tales which recall that Captain Cook founded the cities of Sydney and Darwin and massacred local Aborigines at both places. The fact that Cook died in 1779, nine years before the First Fleet cast anchor at Sydney Cove, causes Attwood no worries. “It might be concluded that these histories lack historical authenticity,” he concedes, “because what they narrate is sharply at odds with what actually happened.” Nonetheless, once we read these stories the proper way, he argues, professional historians can accept them as bearers of historical truth.
Captain Cook stories do not purport to treat Cook as a historical personage, but rather as a mythic character who symbolises British colonisation by encompassing a large set of people, processes, events and the like. As such they do not seek to provide an account of relations between particular peoples in a particular place at a particular time. Instead, they tell of the general relationship between two peoples: the British colonisers and the Aboriginal landowners… As such, it can be argued that these narratives faithfully render the nature of frontier relations and so can be called true histories.
A similar, though not identical, argument about the myths of tribal peoples has long been made by some anthropologists. The narratives told by tribal people obviously contain information they believe, express sentiments and relationships they feel, and act as symbols of wider social relationships. Attwood quotes the work of the Macquarie University anthropologist, the late Kenneth Maddock, as an endorsement of his interpretation of the Captain Cook stories.
But none of this makes Captain Cook stories reliable guides to history, far less “true histories”. Aboriginal people might well believe a story, and it may well sum up their idea of the relationships between colonists and colonised, but that does not make it true.
A clear demonstration of this emerged in the tale of the stolen generations of Aboriginal children. Before Darwin Federal Court in 1999, Peter Gunner and Lorna Cubillo both swore that government officers had forcibly removed them from their families and from their Aboriginal community, against the wishes of their parents, in order to fulfill a state policy of assimilation of part-Aboriginal children into non-Aboriginal society.
Based on similar Aboriginal evidence, Ronald Wilson's 1997 report Bringing Them Home had said government policy on child removal amounted to genocide. Gunner and Cubillo were chosen by Aboriginal Legal Service lawyers as the best candidates for the test case for compensation for all the policy's alleged victims.
It turned out that other evidence before the court convinced Justice Maurice O'Loughlin (himself a former barrister on the pro-Aboriginal side) that neither Gunner nor Cubillo were stolen children. Gunner had been voluntarily placed in a welfare institution and there was no evidence that Mrs Cubillo had been forcibly removed. Justice O'Loughlin also found there was no evidence of any policy, systematic or otherwise, of forcible removable of part-Aboriginal children. In short, the “stolen generations” story was a myth. And in this case, “myth” means untrue.
There is little doubt that many who testified before Wilson 's inquiry passionately believed their stories. They certainly fulfilled the criteria — the memory of the traumatised victims of colonialism — that Attwood advances to turn Aboriginal beliefs into “true history”. However, Justice O'Loughlin's judgment gave a more plausible explanation of why their beliefs were at such variance with the facts:
I am also concerned that they have unconsciously engaged in exercises of reconstruction, based, not on what they knew at the time, but on what they have convinced themselves must have happened or what others have told them.
One of those who supported O'Loughlin's findings was Kenneth Maddock. In Quadrant, October 2000, Maddock examined the literature of anthropologists' fieldwork among Aboriginal communities from 1925 to 1975. He found none of its authors had observed any government programs of genocide or forcible removal. The silence of the anthropologists who, he said, would have been the first to blow the whistle on such practices, almost certainly meant there was nothing to report.
In other words, Attwood's use of Maddock as a supporter of the notion that mythological constructs are historically acceptable is completely deceptive. Indeed, Maddock's writings distinguish sharply between myth and history. He is critical of those, like the prehistorian Josephine Flood, who take a literalist view of mythology. The article by Maddock that Attwood cites, published in Jeremy Beckett's 1988 anthology Past and Present, treats the Captain Cook stories strictly as myths, that is, as stories that lack verisimilitude. Maddock writes:
Contrary to the view some recent writers have taken of aboriginal myths, there is no reason to see them as orally transmitted records of events in which the characters took part. That is so not only when the events described are patently mythical — skins changing colour, boats turning to stone, and so on — but when the characters are historical. The interest of the stories, from an historical point of view, has nothing to do with their telling us who did what, where and when, but with their demonstration that some recurrent processes of culture contact in Australia have been assimilated by Aboriginal imaginations.
Were Maddock still alive and able to respond, he would be appalled at the misappropriation of his work by Attwood in support of the eccentric notion that tales of this kind constitute “true histories”.
In short, Attwood's postmodernist version of history is inherently unreliable. To know what really happened in the past, it is not enough to simply accept Aboriginal beliefs or myths, no matter how passionately they are held, no matter how traumatised their authors, and no matter how many condensed symbols academics imagine they contain.
Moreover, there is no prospect for Attwood's hopes of a fusion of genres between academic history and indigenous mythology. History is the pursuit of the truth about what happened in the past, while mythology has no criterion of truth and little concern for it.
In fact, it is curious to see Attwood making an argument of this kind. In 2000, he published an article critical of the stolen children testimony. He was then sceptical about collective memories and, instead of accepting myths about the past unreservedly, he argued that Aboriginal testimonies needed corroboration by empirical research.
He criticised Peter Read, the ANU historian who coined the term “stolen generations”, for over-relying on testimony based on memory, for allowing a series of minor narratives by individuals to coalesce into a grand master narrative that attributed all child removals to a policy of genocide, in short, for straying far too close to myth and fiction.
However, in the 2001 edition of Aboriginal History, Attwood's critique was severely rebuked by Rosanne Kennedy, a lecturer in women's studies no less. She reminded Attwood of some of the fundamentals of the postmodernist theory to which he was purportedly committed. She chided him for being too empirical and for not agreeing with the founder of postmodern historical theory in America, Hayden White, that history was nothing but a series of literary tropes. She also introduced him to Dominic LaCapra's theories about trauma and victim testimony, which his latest book now adopts with fervour.
Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History thus appears to be Attwood's confession of his previous failings, an act of contrition for allowing himself to have become so outmoded, and a reassurance to colleagues that he is back on track with the correct line.
Attwood would have been better off, however, if instead of wasting his time on more postmodernist theory, he had studied some real philosophy of history. This would not have been difficult because not far from him in Melbourne is Behan McCullagh of La Trobe University who specialises in the latter field. Indeed, McCullagh, the author of The Truth of History (1998) and The Logic of History (2003), is currently the most impressive philosopher of history anywhere.
McCullagh is a historical realist, and his work demolishes the postmodernist cant that saturates the work on which Attwood dotes. Had he read and understood McCullagh, Attwood would have seen that his own criticisms of historical realism are irrelevant. There is no “referential illusion” and there are no epistemological difficulties in historians' dependence on documentary evidence or texts.
It is true, of course, that historians draw inferences about what happened in the past from written texts rather than from their own direct observations. But this only implies their accounts of the past will not be true if that textual evidence is not connected with, or does not establish, what happened. “It is not the fact that their descriptions are inferred from other texts which makes their truth suspect,” McCullagh observes. “It is suspect only if the evidence does not strongly entail their truth in the first place. When the evidence strongly supports the truth of an historical description, one is rationally entitled to believe it is very probably true.”
Moreover, Attwood's claim that history is not about the past but rather “the past in the present” is just as irrelevant. It is an old truism that every generation rewrites history to pursue its own interests and answer its own questions. But this poses no fundamental problem for historical truth about the past. A description of the past is true if something happened in the past that resembled one of the conventional truth conditions of the description. We verify the truth of that description by directly observing whether the documents and artifacts that survive from the past correspond to those truth conditions.
As I noted above, Attwood has been making a living out of the Aborigines for the past twenty years. His articles often profess concern about justice for them. One of his books is called Rights for Aborigines. But the kind of history he advocates is unlikely to deliver them either justice or rights.
To describe indigenous myths as “the authoritative bearers of the truth about history” is to do a disservice to the interests of Aboriginal people. It is just as bad as affirming the ancient Aboriginal belief that sickness is caused by sorcery. It is no different to missionaries telling them the Book of Genesis provides an accurate account of the creation of the world.
Moreover, postmodernist history is essentially dishonest. It is born out of bad faith, since those who profess the theory don't take seriously the stories they pretend to endorse. Attwood might feign support for the Captain Cook myths of Northern Australia but he doesn't believe them himself.
Unfortunately, as long as the humanities and social sciences continue to be controlled by the Left, academic patronage will ensure that little changes. The practices and theories that now prevail will not only publicly discredit the historians of Aboriginal Australia but the whole academic profession of history.
Indeed, anyone in the profession should be disturbed by the kind of work now being produced by the upcoming generation of postgraduate students. A recent conference at the University of Newcastle for indigenous people engaged in historical and social science research advertised papers with the following titles:
Why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Peoples Should Boycott Research! Why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Must Boycott Research!
Is disease theory a mythical fabrication embedded in Australian historiography to rationalise the misappropriation of another peoples' lands and waterways?
Foucault's Governmentality Literature and Indigenous Affairs.
The history of western education in Australia for Indigenous peoples has been destructive to Indigenous beliefs and culture.
Indigenous Research Methodologies: It's all about a good Yarn Up
How much further does this field have to decline before it attracts some serious internal criticism?