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May 01st 2009 print

John Dawson

The Fabrication-Deniers

After analysing this case in detail in Washout, I concluded that: “Ryan’s instinct for self-exoneration is never too shy to spin her own failings off as her adversary’s culpability.” It is disturbing to discover that she is not the only professor willing to employ this extraordinary strategy.

First published in Quadrant, May 2009

If someone were to write a book about denials of wrongdoings by Jack the Ripper, Al Capone, Osama bin Laden and the author’s ex-wife, it would be reasonable to suspect that the author was out to smear his ex. When an Australian academic writes a book about denials of wrongdoings by: the Turks in Armenia, the Nazis during the Holocaust, the Japanese in Nanking, the Soviets under Stalin, the Serbs in the Balkans, and the British in Van Diemen’s Land, it is reasonable to suspect that the author is out to smear anyone who denies that the British committed genocide in Van Diemen’s Land. Last year Tony Taylor wrote just such a book, titled Denial: History Betrayed.

Taylor claims that he wrote Denial in order to examine “denial as a historical genre”. But if that were his purpose, why would he undermine his analysis of five denials which were made in the face of overwhelming evidence that the genocides had occurred, by throwing in a sixth denial which was made due to the overwhelming lack of evidence that any genocide had occurred?

Chapter six of Denial is titled, “Failing the Scholarly Test: Australian Denial and the Art of Pseudohistory”. It is an unscrupulously tendentious attack on Keith Windschuttle for writing The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land 1803–1847. Readers well-versed in what Windschuttle does and doesn’t say in Fabrication will be bemused, if not disgusted by Taylor’s portrayal of that book. But Denial wasn’t written for them. It was written for not-so-well-versed readers, with the objective of associating in their minds Windschuttle’s denial of Australian genocide and David Irving’s denial of the Holocaust—with the former being allotted considerably more space and venom than the latter.

One of the bemusing aspects of “Failing the Scholarly Test” is that its attempt to tag Windschuttle a “denialist” like David Irving doesn’t clearly state what it is that Windschuttle is supposed to have falsely denied. Genocide? Massacres? A particular death toll? Taylor identifies nothing so specific. Could anyone accuse David Irving of being a denialist without at some point mentioning that he denies that Hitler’s Nazis murdered millions of Jews in concentration camps? Taylor manages to accuse Windschuttle of being Australia’s equivalent of David Irving without stating explicitly what he falsely denies—that way he doesn’t have to identify what specific denials are refuted by what specific evidence or arguments.

In fact Taylor ventures no judgment about what did or didn’t happen to the Aborigines in Van Diemen’s Land at all. He even concedes that “Windschuttle’s case may have some overblown merit when it comes to massacres.” So why does Windschuttle feature in a book about denialists, if all he is allegedly guilty of is overblowing a merit-worthy case? Because Windschuttle’s case: “has little merit when it comes to his fiction of politically correct consensus among scholars of Australian history”. In other words: even though he may have got the historical facts right, Windschuttle is to be branded a denialist because of what he says about us academics. This theme plays in the background at first; later it builds into a clanging crescendo.

Taylor presents an interesting review of Australia’s Aboriginal history war and Windschuttle’s pivotal role in it. He concedes that Henry Reynolds’s calculations of Aboriginal deaths were “possibly flawed”, that Reynolds once misquoted someone, and that Lyndall Ryan’s figures need “revision”. But his cloak of scholarly impartiality soon slips from his shoulders as he takes up his polemical machete and starts slashing away at Windschuttle and anyone who finds Windschuttle’s arguments convincing. He seems particularly incensed by the existence of Quadrant and by what he believes to be the collusion of the Australian in an insidious assault on the poor Howard-besieged academic monoculture. (If only!) He demonstrates this by comparing the number of references to Windschuttle in the Australian with the number in the Fairfax papers—the fact that the references were as likely to be critical as supportive doesn’t impress him.

While watching the history war go by, Taylor must have been collecting up every charge made against any academic, multiplying and spicing them up, so that when the time was right he could project them back as bald accusations against Windschuttle. When Howard was replaced by Rudd, Taylor decided the history and culture wars were over and it was time for him to administer Windschuttle’s coup de grace. That deed done, he now looks forward to the academics being able to get back to business-as-usual, as Fabrication is “relegated to a minor footnote of historiography, [to be] regarded as an ill-advised oddity like Hitler’s Willing Executioners or “an ill-conceived notoriety, like Hugh Trevor-Roper’s 1983 endorsement of the fake Hitler Diaries”. Such is Taylor’s objective. Such is his wish.

Taylor’s attack relies almost exclusively on the accusations made in Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History. He swallowed that book hook, line, smear, tear and blinkers and simply regurgitates its allegations, liberally seasoned with his own pungent bile, falsely declaring that the allegations had gone “largely unanswered”. He totally ignores the refutations of those allegations delivered in debates and articles by Windschuttle, and in my book, Washout: On the Academic Response to the Fabrication of Aboriginal History, which Taylor dismisses as merely a “Windschuttle defence by repetition”. In an appendix Taylor lists eighty-five allegations made in Whitewash, nearly all of which have been exposed and repudiated by Windschuttle (for example at www.sydneyline.com) or in Washout.

Strangely, Taylor omits the allegations made by Dirk Moses, on the grounds that Moses “does not make the same specific claims against the scholarly merit of Fabrication. And yet allegations made by other Whitewash authors that are no more specific are listed; and Taylor’s technique of comparing Windschuttle with the likes of Irving by means of irrelevancies and non-essentials follows Moses’s lead. Indeed, it follows it so closely in places that Moses might wonder why he was not acknowledged as the inventor of this fallacious technique. 

On the basis of his uncritical reading of Whitewash, Taylor calls Windschuttle’s work “tendentious and careless”. No worse than me calling Taylor’s work “unscrupulously tendentious” (as above)? The difference is that my charges against Taylor are backed by referenced examples (as below). Taylor’s are made without references or examples or truth: Windschuttle throws in “more than just a touch of racial obsession”. No he doesn’t. Windschuttle claims that atrocities by British Christians “simply could not have happened, or if they did, they were not atrocities”. No he doesn’t. Windschuttle “has been accused of fudging interpretations, bending the facts and concealing inconvenient evidence”. Accused yes, found guilty no. Windschuttle’s “corpus delecti criterion for measuring deaths—[is] essentially every body tagged and named and every death witnessed by a ‘reliable’ observer”. No it isn’t. Windschuttle practises “tendentious and unreasoning dismissal of Indigenous Australian testimony”. No he doesn’t. “Windschuttle, the pseudohistorian, seems incapable of reasoned scholarly behaviour.” Read: Windschuttle refuses to fall in behind the academics’ line. Reynolds and Ryan, in contrast, “put their hands up and amended their thinking”, in response to Windschuttle’s findings. No they didn’t. They ducked and weaved and fudged and diverted attention until they were cornered, at which time they amended some of their errors.

But what about the uncorrected wrongdoings by Windschuttle that Taylor goes on and on about? What are they? Seven of them were made in the introduction to Fabrication, says Taylor, the other eighty-five were made throughout the rest of Fabrication, as exposed in Whitewash (actually, many of the eighty-five are disagreements couched in belligerent terms rather than even alleged wrongdoings). The seven wrongdoings in the introduction are as follows: an “exaggerated phrase” in the title, a grammatical error, a reference to 1960s radicals in the universities without a qualifying reference to non-radicals such as Geoffrey Blainey, a straw man characterisation of Canberra’s National Museum, a non sequitur, an inadequate “dangling footnote”, and a reference to a “highly contentious” theory.

The first three of these are too silly to bother with here, and the National Museum issue is not germane. The non sequitur according to Taylor is the implication that “Reynolds’s 1985 call for a strong debate” was causally connected to Blainey’s retirement from Melbourne University in 1988. But what Windschuttle presents in Fabrication is a reported quote from Reynolds stating that “a whole team got together with jackhammers” to criticise Blainey’s views and pull down his “edifice”. And in an interview in 2006 Blainey confirmed that he would not have resigned had it not been for the hostile campaign. Windschuttle hadn’t read that interview when he wrote Fabrication, but the connection was obvious. The alleged “dangling footnote” relates to a discussion of the left-wing stranglehold on the humanities faculties and influence within the publishing industry. The footnote directs the reader to a two-page exemplification of the latter, but the former, the claim that the Left has a stranglehold over what is accepted in humanities classrooms is unsupported—except by the eyes and ears of anyone who walks onto a campus or talks to a humanities student or reads an academic discussion such as Taylor’s criticism of Windschuttle’s “highly contentious” proposition. 

As Taylor explains it, Windschuttle’s “highly contentious” and “simplistic” advocacy of a “politics-free environment” for the study of history would “almost certainly” result in a dissertation being rejected by an examiner! Taylor believes that such an advocacy is self-evidently naive and uneducated, as if anyone advocating such a thing must be hopelessly ignorant of the Marxian theory that political beliefs determined by economic forces structure history and perceptions thereof, and of postmodern theory that political and historical realities are constructs of the texts people write and adopt, and of numerous other such not-so-contentious theories that haunt the halls of academia.

The only theory contentious enough to be rejected by academia, it seems, is the theory that reality is what it is, that what happened happened, and that an historian’s primary responsibility is to discover and identify what happened, apolitically and dispassionately. Taylor, who prefers that history be written compassionately, should read “Wadeye: Failed State as Cultural Triumph” by Patrick McCauley (Quadrant, December 2008) to learn what such “compassion” has wrought and why McCauley calls for: “Historians without Politics … Anthropologists without Politics … in fact Academics without Politics”. Taylor declares that the wrongdoings in Fabrication’s introduction alone are enough to establish that Windschuttle “fails the test”, and to categorise him as a “pseudohistorian”. As for the wrongdoings exposed by Whitewash, Taylor declares them to be too numerous to canvass, except to present a couple of examples to give his readers an idea of the magnitude of Windschuttle’s wickedness. The first example is a charge that Windschuttle employs “unsubstantiated supposition and conjecture” with regard to his judgment of the credibility of Gilbert Robertson. The second is a charge that Windschuttle commits an “inarguable and inexcusable” breach of the rules in his treatment of Lyndall Ryan’s footnotes. So we had better look into these charges:

In his attack on Ryan and others, Windschuttle resorts to unsubstantiated supposition and conjecture, the very sins for which he castigates his opponents. For example, in criticising a discussion of District Chief Constable Robertson, an observer of the 1828 Pittwater massacre, in Ryan’s 1975 PhD, Windschuttle asserts that “as demonstrated below Robertson was a notoriously unreliable witness, prone to exaggerating rumours about violence done to blacks”. However, when it comes to “below”, all that Windschuttle provides is: “It appears [italics added by Taylor] that this was how Robertson’s peers regarded his evidence in 1830”. This piece of guesswork is offered as a question-begging assertion to back up the previous claim, a tactic reminiscent of the dangling footnote technique in Fabrication’s introduction.

This is Windschuttle’s statement, as it appears on page 137 of Fabrication:

Moreover, there is no contemporary evidence to corroborate Robertson’s story. Thomas Lascelles was then police magistrate of Richmond but none of his papers in either Historical Records of Australia, Series III, on Van Diemen’s Land, or in the archives of the Colonial Secretary’s Office, mention an attack of this kind. He would have been obliged to report such an incident, had it occurred, and he had nothing to hide about it … None of the contemporary newspapers, which were very interested in publishing stories about conflict with the blacks, reported this incident. In other words, no one but Gilbert Robertson seems to have heard of it. As demonstrated below, Robertson was a notoriously unreliable witness, prone to exaggerating rumours about violence done to the blacks. It appears this was how Robertson’s peers regarded his evidence in 1830. The final report of the Aborigines Committee did not take this claim seriously enough to mention it, even though the report accepted other hearsay evidence even further removed in time, such as the various accounts of what happened at Risdon Cove in 1804.

“As demonstrated below” clearly refers to more than the immediately following sentence. It refers to discussions of Robertson’s credibility and how it was judged by his peers and by the 1830 Committee, issues discussed and illustrated on pages 137, 146, 147, 148 and 149. Taylor’s accusation is fraudulent.

But “there is more”, and Taylor imprudently raises the infamous claim made by Lyndall Ryan in The Aboriginal Tasmanians that by 1808 kangaroo hunters had probably killed 100 Aborigines. In Fabrication Windschuttle discredits the claim by revealing that the footnote below it refers to Reverend Knopwood’s diary which records only four Aborigines killed. In Whitewash Ryan complains that Windschuttle had not presented the references footnoted below the next paragraph, which refer to reports by John Oxley, which were the real source of her estimate of 100 Aborigines killed. However, when Helen Dalley of Channel Nine pointed out that the Oxley references didn’t support her estimate of 100 probable fatalities either, Ryan admitted that she had made the figure up.

Despite the fact that “Ryan’s case is thin to the point of invisibility”, argues Taylor, “[t]wo wrongs don’t make a right”. So it is not Ryan’s methodology that Taylor judges “both inarguable and inexcusable”, but Windschuttle’s! How so? Taylor claims that Windschuttle “conflated two paragraphs” and so “ignored a crucial footnote” which referred to reports from Oxley, which included a reference to the “considerable loss of life among the natives” caused by kangaroo hunting. Once again Windschuttle fails Taylor’s “scholarly test” because his “conflation of the paragraphs and omission of a key footnote break the rules”.

If Professor Taylor were to bend over and peer at his audience from between his ankles, he would not present a less dignified spectacle than this attempt to mitigate Ryan’s malaise by concocting this charge against Windschuttle. Windschuttle did not conflate any paragraphs. He took the (Knopwood) footnote below the paragraph that recorded the 100 probable fatalities as relating to that paragraph. He took the (Oxley) footnote below the next paragraph as relating to that paragraph (which made sense subject-wise). What did he conflate? What rule did he break?

It was Ryan who tried to conflate the two paragraphs, by claiming in Whitewash that they constituted “a two-paragraph discussion about the impact of kangaroo hunting on the Tasmanian Aborigines”. But there is no such “two-paragraph discussion”, as Taylor could readily determine by reading page 77 of Ryan’s book. Six paragraphs appear on that page. Three of them mention Aborigines; the Knopwood paragraph is one of them, the Oxley paragraph is not.

If we were to bend over backwards nearly as far as Taylor does to help Ryan out, the most we could say is that two nearly invisible scraps of evidence would be better than one nearly invisible scrap of evidence. But even then, how would that make Windschuttle’s inability to mind-read Ryan’s anomalous footnote agenda an “inarguable and inexcusable” breach of the rules? Whereas Ryan’s performance, although criticised, is classified as merely “open to question”?

After analysing this case in detail in Washout, I concluded that: “Ryan’s instinct for self-exoneration is never too shy to spin her own failings off as her adversary’s culpability.” It is disturbing to discover that she is not the only professor willing to employ this extraordinary strategy. Neither Ryan nor any other academic responded to my analysis of this case (or to nineteen other such cases). Taylor ignored it in the belief that my book had “disappeared without a trace”. I can understand why he would so wish.

Having demonstrated how Windschuttle fails “the scholarly test” with two examples (as above), Taylor laments that: “Unfortunately, this kind of tendentious and careless work by Windschuttle permeates Fabrication in a manner too frequent and too detailed to be examined in this chapter.” Then, buoyed by this triumph, he moves on to the next step:

The next step is to lay out a final tally in the footnotes contest. As a case in point and using solely the responses of the specialist authors in Whitewash, there are eighty-five substantive allegations against Windschuttle of egregious error, methodological blunders, economy with the truth, misrepresentations of the opposing point of view, convenient elisions and significant factual errors. These claims, made by respected representatives from the fields of history, sociology, law and archaeology, average out at one major blemish in every fifth page of Windschuttle’s book. Windschuttle’s failings, as outlined in Whitewash (for details see the Appendix), include … 

What follows is a tirade of frenetic allegations, which don’t have to be evidenced or exemplified of course, since Taylor had presented the two examples to indicate the sort of major blemishes involved, and since the allegations were made by respected, expert, fair-minded academics like him. His next step is to contrast the eighty-five allegations the academics made against Windschuttle with the mere seventeen Windschuttle made against Ryan, the similar number he made against Robson, and the smaller number he made against Reynolds (I kid you not!). To Taylor’s professorial mind, this numerical comparison of allegations proves once and for all that Fabrication is a “disaster area” and that Windschuttle lost the “battle of the footnotes” hands down. The fact that Windschuttle’s allegations against the academics are substantive and scrupulous and proven, while their allegations against him are indiscriminate and unscrupulous and specious doesn’t come into the equation. Taylor, of course, insists that the eighty-five allegations made in Whitewash are of egregious faults. Which begs for an answer to the question: why didn’t he pick some convincing examples to demonstrate this, rather than the two fabricated examples exposed above?

Yes, the Whitewash authors are expert “respected representatives” of academia—which makes their performance so much worse. Yes, Tony Taylor is an associate professor, a former Director of the Australian government’s National Inquiry into the Teaching and Learning of History (Howard-besieged years 1999– 2000), a former Director of the National Centre for History Education (2001 to 2007). Consequently he will be respected as an authority on Australian history around the world. This is what he is counting on to get away with this piece of work—at taxpayers’ expense.

Whatever the merits and demerits of the first five chapters of Denial might be (see “Historical Revision versus Holocaust Denial” by William D. Rubinstein, Quadrant, December 2008), chapter six discredits the whole book. Well-versed readers will be thrown into doubt as to the veracity of the first five chapters as well. Not-so-well-versed readers will absorb the ill-defined belief that the British committed genocide in Van Diemen’s Land. Either way, good scholarship and truthful history lose.

For whom does “Failing the Scholarly Test” toll? Taylor’s mendacious diatribe adds nothing to any scholarly investigation of what happened to the Van Diemen’s Land Aborigines. It adds nothing to any scholarly investigation into the methodology required to discover what happened. Its subject is not truth and denial of truth. Its subject is how academics can get the ex who embarrassed them. It treats the most serious historical topic imaginable, genocide, as a weapon of self-indulgent vengeance. To euphemise: Taylor’s piece of work is a national disgrace.