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November 01st 2010 print

John Izzard

Keeping Track of the Fabrications

Washout: On the Academic Response to the Fabrication of Aboriginal History (revised edition), by John Dawson; Macleay Press, 2010, 416 pages, $39.95.

When Keith Windschuttle’s monumental work The Fabrication of Aboriginal History hit the bookshops in 2002, the game was finally up for the academics who had spent a generation manipulating Australia’s colonial history. And boy, were they cross. As one of them told me the month Fabrication was released, “The genie’s out of the bottle and we’ll never get it back in.”

The genie might go under the name of accuracy or honesty or intellectual freedom—even truth—but whatever the genie represented to the left-wing intelligentsia, their key objective was the blitzing of Fabrication’s author, Keith Windschuttle. It was the most deplorable example of academic intolerance and revenge since many of the same crowd worked over Professor Geoffrey Blainey in 1984. It was rage and fury, with all of the spite and venom of cornered ideologues.

The climax of their vehemence was a rushed little publication in 2003, entitled Whitewash—a sort of pun-title meant to highlight the perceived “whitey” nature of Fabrication, and, no doubt, get a knowing giggle from academics and bigoted genocidists. Whitewash was their official response to Australia’s developing History Wars.

Whitewash was a collection of essays meant to counter the evidence that Keith Windschuttle had produced with his sweeping, forensic examination of the documentary evidence available on the Aboriginal–European conflict in Tasmania in the early 1800s. Tasmania has possibly the best collection of early colonial records in the nation, so it is not as though the evidence of conflict is scant. It is not.

Whitewash was edited by the Professor of Politics at La Trobe University, Robert Manne. Manne managed to recruit for Whitewash twenty cerebral heavyweights, including himself and the likes of James Boyce, Shayne Breen, Dirk Moses, Tim Murray, Mark Finnane, Martin Krygier, Robert van Krieken, Cassandra Pybus, Greg Lehman and others. Their task was to write essays and produce counter-arguments critical of Windschuttle’s findings. Manne also secured the services of Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan—the uber-dons of Aboriginal–European conflict studies. Reynolds and Ryan also happened to be the main target of Windschuttle’s searing revelations of invention and falsification.

To counter the intellectual nonsense published in Whitewash, Melbourne writer and businessman John Dawson published, in 2004, Washout, a lively and careful dissection of the twenty essays that Robert Manne had assembled in Whitewash. Never before had Australian readers had such a unique opportunity to observe the methods and standards­—and the philosophical and political deceit—that operate in Australian universities in general, and their humanities faculties in particular. Washout was a wonderful exposé on just how ideological-driven academics react when trapped, and the sort of arguments they are prepared to use to justify the indefensible.

In July 2004, before Dawson launched Washout, the Australian Historical Association met in Newcastle to try to deal with the fall-out from both Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication and Robert Manne’s Whitewash. The Australian’s Ean Higgins picks up the story:

As the elite of the nation’s academic historians met in the stately rooms of the Newcastle Town Hall, fear and loathing lurked in the corridors. The Australian Historical Association spent virtually the entire day trying to work out strategies to deal with the menace. Would there be safety in numbers if academics stood together? What should be done when the terror struck again?

Higgins ventured on with details that he had gleaned from those who had met in conclave (to discuss Australian history!):

An extraordinary number [of the academic history profession] believe they have been damaged by populist history propounded by Windschuttle. They are searching for a way out. Only a few seem brave enough to speak up, arguing that freedom of expression is the primary issue.

West Australian historian Cathie Clement [raised the need for] a code of conduct that would gag historians from criticising the integrity of their peers …

Several in the audience said everyone had to be ready to counter-attack when Windschuttle came out with his next book.

It wasn’t Keith Windschuttle that came out with the next book, but John Dawson. Now Dawson has reissued Washout. The new book contains the original seven chapters of the 2004 edition plus seven new Epilogues devoted to rebutting five new books and umpteen articles published since 2004 attacking Keith Windschuttle and Fabrication. The question is: Why is so much time, muddled thought and academic angst being devoted to just one book and one author?

In order to achieve certain political goals, orthodox historians had been working on the theory that British settlers in Tasmania had committed “genocide”, purposely wiping out the Tasmanian Aboriginal population. These political goals ranged from gaining Aboriginal sovereignty over the entire continent of Australia, to the less ambitious notion of “self-governing Aboriginal homelands”, with Australian citizens paying for an Aboriginal government that would provide services and a perpetual income for indigenous Australians.

A more recent plan has been for a scheme to make all non-Aboriginal citizens pay a fee for the right to live in Australia. This plan, called “Pay the Rent”, has been smouldering since about 1997 and is well developed. The underlying theme of the campaign has been the theme adapted from Monty Python, where the Judeans chanted, “What have the Romans ever done for us!” Or as the many orthodox historians have taught the gullible, accentuate the negative about the colonisation of Australia. Summed up in one word—resentment.

In his introduction to the new edition of Washout John Dawson states:

What is beyond dispute is that the culture gap that yawned between the two peoples who first met in the summer of 1788 was as wide as the oceans the newcomers had been borne across by wind and sail. When the British sailed into Botany Bay they ended forever the Aborigines’ 50,000-year isolation. Suddenly antipodean cultures stood face to face. As historian Geoffrey Blainey described it: “People who could not boil water were confronted by a nation which had recently contrived the steam engine.”

The newcomers brought with them strange animals and wondrous chattels—and, unknowingly, bacteria and viruses that attacked the locals mercilessly. Most challenging of all, they brought alien ideas. Over the next few decades the new Australians spread out across the continent and to the island of Tasmania, known in those times as Van Diemen’s Land. Many of the settlers were Britain’s outcasts, convicts and misfits, but even they were borne by the winds of the Enlightenment. Its spirit of discovery, invention and ambition drove them across a land that had never known fence or plough—only the feet and fire of people who had never known the ideal of progress.

Orthodox historians had the difficult task of denying the above, which has been the general story of mankind since the ancestors of Lucy decided to move on from the Rift Valley and explore the world beyond. Peoples with a superior willpower, smarter technology and an ever-growing and aggressive notion of how to improve their life on earth, is the basic story of human evolution.

Orthodox historians could hardly say that the 300-odd tribal groups that occupied the Australian continent and Tasmania prior to 1788 were better off just being left in isolation—and living as they had for the past 50,000 years—although they do say this by implication. And of course the various Aboriginal arrivals over the 50,000 years in question were many and varied. One group moved in to replaced another. There is nothing unique about the various “Aboriginal invasions” that secured the continent, other than the period of time involved.

What orthodox historians who took up the “Aboriginal cause” realised was that the best way to produce a political outcome, such as sovereignty or “Pay the Rent”, was to destroy the credibility of non-Aboriginal society via the rewriting of colonial history. Guilt was the main weapon to use against white Australian society, while resentment was the weapon of choice to empower Aboriginal politics. What was also needed was to enhance the pre-colonial Aboriginal lifestyle to present “Aboriginal culture” as equal, or indeed superior, to that of the West. Culture-enhancement suddenly became the new weapon of choice for those dedicated followers of the new enlightenment. The recent opening of the Commonwealth parliament, with smoking ceremonies and the newly invented “custom” of “welcome to country” is an good example of their success.

In his introduction to Washout, John Dawson shows that nothing in the Aborigines’ notion of the world could have prepared them for the experience of 1788. Their culture was essentially backward-looking, its focus the Dreamtime of their ancestors. He quotes R.M. and C.H. Berndt in The World of the First Australians:

The mythological era, then, is regarded as setting a precedent for all human behaviour from that time on. It was the period when patterns of living were established, and laws laid down for human beings to follow. This was the past, the sacred past; but it was not the past in the sense of something that was over and done with …

This attitude is summarized in the expression “The Eternal Dreamtime”, which underlies the belief that the mythological past is vital and relevant in the present, and in the future.

The above gives the reader of Washout something of an idea of what orthodox historians had to play with when they set about rewriting and rejigging colonial history and the story of white–Aboriginal conflict. John Dawson continues:

So it had been in Australia, sons doing what fathers did, fathers what their fathers had done since the first arrivals floated ashore on rafts some 50,000 years ago. Throughout the rest of the world, 10,000 to 5000 years ago, humanity settled into permanent farming communities, but this Neolithic revolution mysteriously passed the Australian Aborigines by.

On a continent that knew no wheel-rut, they lived in a rut of a culture whose Promised Land was in the past—until colonists bounced them out on their trek to the Industrial Revolution. For that the settlers have been doing penance ever since.

Twenty essayists:

Washout is an assessment of the twenty essayists that Robert Manne assembled. It is also a sharp counter to the arguments they floated in their essays.

In essence, in Fabrication, Keith Windschuttle debunked two embarrassing academic positions. First, he proved that there had been no systematic slaughter of Aboriginal people by the white settlers in Tasmania, and that the claims of “genocide” were a concoction. Second, he showed that leading historians, in particular Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan, had fabricated evidence regarding the extent of the Aboriginal deaths and the circumstances of the unfolding white–Aboriginal conflict between the 1820s and 1840s in Van Diemen’s Land.

At over 400 pages, John Dawson’s Washout is too detailed to give all of the essayists an outing, so just a taste, of their style and thinking, is given here.

Robert Manne:

Manne got the Washout essays off to a flying political start by arguing, in effect: Anyone who is convinced by Windschuttle’s arguments may be dismissed as being politically predetermined to do so.

The above is an extraordinary position, worthy of any senior member of a politburo from one of the fascist or communist regimes of the past. Or as Paul Valery noted: “Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs which properly concern them.” Manne identified the problem of Windschuttle’s Fabrication as a political problem and took no prisoners, particularly when it came to anyone who does not accept that fabrication is justifiable within academic historical research. Or put it another way, the “political imperative” justifies a few fibs.

James Boyce:

Boyce’s contribution to Whitewash was a mouth-foaming denunciation of Keith Windschuttle, with a particular emphasis on Windschuttle’s inability to get his facts right. Right!

Boyce lets fly with:

Windschuttle can impose his contemporary conclusions on Van Diemen’s Land history only by limiting his selection of sources, thereby silencing not just ordinary Van Diemonians but—with almost unheard-of presumption—even the privileged classes.

“Even the privileged classes”? This is a bit rich coming from a budding historian on Tasmanian history and the author of Van Diemen’s Land. You can search the writings of orthodox historians for hours—days—weeks even, without finding any opinion, quote or document that supports or gives sympathy for the so-called “privileged classes”. You can search in vain for any contemporary historian who reports that the “awkward” historical data shows that whites killed, by violent means, 120 black Tasmanians, while the Aborigines killed, in a violent manner, 187 whites. Game to the Aborigines.

Unfortunately both privileged classes and the less privileged classes get little mention in the world of those who engage in political predeterminism. In their black view of Australian history the European settlers play no part other than to be targets for academic accusations and fabrications.

Boyce claims Windschuttle is author of many “gross oversights and mistakes”, and that: “170 years of scholarship, 200 years of well-accessed and widely read records, will leave this particular attempt to deny our story looking very shallow indeed.”

As John Dawson notes, in his revised Washout:

Like an avenging angel with a jackhammer, Boyce sets about undermining the Fabrication “edifice”. Denunciations of Windschuttle’s “extraordinary naïve”, “transparently flawed”, “distorted and unbalanced perspective”; “startling omission[s]”, “profound ignorance” and “serious”, “embarrassing”, “elementary” errors go by, page after page.

Anticipation of the disclosure of examples of this litany of scholastic crimes mounts, then gets lost in the next wave of denunciations, then mounts again. The problem is that when a reader tries to put his finger on exactly what “gross oversights and mistakes” the denunciations denote, their identity proves to be mysteriously elusive. Sometimes opposite accusations cancel each other out.

Dawson applies the Catch-22 analogy to Boyce’s logic and finds that Boyce is a master of that art. In doing so Dawson also reveals the sort of clever trickery that was used in the unsuccessful attempt to discredit Keith Windschuttle. He goes on to reveal:

To go from the lame to the inane, on page 38 of Whitewash we find Boyce backing Windschuttle into a corner with the rhetorical question: “Why, on Fabrication’s own terms, [were] the orders warning against committing acts of violence against Aborigines … even necessary … if no Aborigines had been killed by whites for two years?”

What he would have concluded if there had been no orders warning against killing Aborigines he didn’t say, but the Catch-22 is plain:

Anyone who shows that the British actively outlawed the killing of Aborigines implies that the British were killing Aborigines.

What James Boyce doesn’t say is that warnings were dispatched as a matter of British policy for colonial governance, and a new Governor had to be able to demonstrate to London that he had complied.

Dirk Moses:

By far the most rancid essay in Whitewash was written by Dirk Moses, who attempted to brand Keith Windschuttle as a “denier”, something like David Irving. He also attempted to associate Australia (he was writing about Tasmania where just 120 known violent acts had occurred against Tasmanian Aborigines over a period of about forty-three years) with such acts as the slaughter of the Chinese by the Japanese Army and their Massacre of Nanking.

Moses is an Associate Professor in the History Department at Sydney University. He is the co-convenor of the MA Holocaust Studies. Moses is deeply immersed in the world of genocide, perhaps one might say to a “spooky” degree, as his quote from John Dawson’s Washout confirms: “Australia has many genocides, perhaps more than any other country.”

Really! Perhaps he might name them all.

Henry Reynolds:

A few years ago I spent two weeks in Rwanda and Burundi. At the genocide museum in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, there is a giant map of the world showing where known genocides have taken place. There is Germany under the Nazis, Cambodia under Pol Pot, the hotly debated genocide of the Armenians by the Turks, and down at the bottom of the map, Australia is marked, “Genocide of 26,000 Aborigines—1826.” The only source for this figure and date I can find seems to come from the writings of Professor Henry Reynolds.

To defame one’s own country is a serious business, so the unexpected publication of Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication had serious implications for the professor and indeed for the whole genocide industry. Indeed, it might be said that the whole “Pay the Rent” campaign suddenly looked like being without its bag-lady.

To underestimate Reynolds’s involvement in the notion of “genocide” in Australia is to fail to grasp the implications of the long-term campaign goals of those involved. The nexus between the rewriting of history and land rights is now obvious. The next step is sovereignty or “Pay the Rent”. No wonder, like the Roman Senate, the cry came out, “Carthage must be destroyed”, though in Australia’s case it was Keith Windschuttle who needed to be destroyed. There was just too much to lose.

In Washout, John Dawson begins the chapter on Henry Reynolds’s essay with:

The phrase “terra nullius” was not spoken on the Endeavour in 1770, nor did the quill pen of Governor Arthur Phillip write it in 1788, nor was it heard anywhere in Sydney Cove during the eighteenth century. In fact, according to Tasmanian writer and historian Dr Michael Connor, we have no reason to believe the phrase was used in relation to the colonisation of Australia until the second half of the twentieth century.

Nobody except a handful of historians and international lawyers had ever heard of “terra nullius” until it was adopted and adapted by the best known and most trusted historian on Aboriginal and White conflict, Professor Henry Reynolds. In The Law of the Land, published in 1987, Reynolds re-defined “terra nullius”. He took a 1939 passage, which defined “terra nullius” as “land not under any sovereignty”, and a 1910 passage containing the term “res nullius”, which he replaced with “terra nullius” in square brackets. He then commandeered the “res nullius” definition, a “a thing which has no owner” and attached it to “terra nullius”.

Terra nullius was just what the “1969-style” radicals who had taken over Australia’s humanities faculties needed for their latest campaign. Terra nullius sounded like a scholarly time-honoured term and was ripe for equivocation. It was propagated in ideologically primed schools, manoeuvred skilfully through the media, and when it arrived on the bench of the High Court in 1992 it was “the only explanation for the British settlement of Australia” the court was to consider.

No wonder the academics and writers of history who attended the Australian Historical Association conference in Newcastle were so concerned. The whole edifice of land rights and Pay the Rent was suddenly in danger. The credibility of the star witness, Henry Reynolds, was in serious doubt.

The impact of the very big problem created by the arrival of Fabrication in 2002 is reflected by the apparent need for Australia’s historians to publish six books, and untold articles, in an attempt to rebut Keith Windschuttle’s arguments. The books, apart from Whitewash, are: Genocide and Settler Society, edited by Dirk Moses (2004), The Historian’s Conscience, edited by Stuart Macintyre (2004), Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History, by Bain Attwood (2005), Denial, by Tony Taylor (2008) and Van Diemen’s Land by James Boyce (2008).

The most harmful of Windschuttle’s arguments was his demolition of the claim that genocide had taken place in Van Diemen’s Land by British arrivals. This noxious claim that genocide had taken place over a period of twenty years, destroying a native population estimated at being somewhere between 2000 and 5000 people, when the documentary evidence could only show 120 Aboriginal deaths associated with European retaliation, could not be substantiated. It was an embarrassment.

In Epilogue Four, “The Genocide Jury”, Dawson lists some of the key comments made by various writers in Whitewash. He says:

While many academic historians were circumspect [in Whitewash] about describing Australian colonisation as genocide, they rarely combated the myth, and from time to time they would describe it in words to that effect themselves. For example:

Lloyd Robson: “I have sought to show who the Aboriginal people were, and how they were dispossessed and destroyed by their invaders and conquerors in an impressive example of extermination and race relations so characteristic of the nineteenth century.”

Bain Atwood: “For the foreseeable future, the fate of reconciliation will 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.”

Cassandra Pybus: “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 was recognised as such at the time.”

As the reader ploughs through the torturous arguments and bewildering prose used at times by Boyce, Moses, Macintyre, Attwood and Taylor, one marvels that John Dawson didn’t lose his sanity. Try this little piece from Bain Attwood:

While Reynolds and other historians in the field of Aboriginal history have acknowledged the influence of the present in history making, very few have been able to accept the implications of this for the nature of historical understanding, let alone historical authority. Instead, like the vast majority of academic historians, they have retreated and continue to claim more or less that their knowledge of the past rests on some bedrock of which they are not really a part. As Peter Novic has remarked, the traditional ideal of historical objectivity has been modified in recent times, but in some way or another most historians cleave to its principles, at least when they try to account for the basis of their historical interpretations.

As Dawson points out, “What Attwood implies is that Reynolds should have stated proudly that his narratives were fabricated, which would have left revisionists [like Keith Windschuttle] nothing to expose.” Welcome to the academic world of Australian history!

With the twenty essays of Whitewash to consider, and the new seven Epilogues to digest, the reader of the new edition of John Dawson’s Washout can only gasp at the utter nonsense and deception that high school and university students are being subjected to. Their courses should have warning labels attached.

Those indulging in this sort of Orwellian mindset are winning the race, particularly in our education establishments, the media and in politics. We desperately need more Windschuttles and Dawsons.

John Izzard, who lives in Tasmania, is a frequent contributor to Quadrant and Quadrant Online.