History Wars

Against the bullies

John Dawson responding to Frank Devine’s launch of The White Australia Policy and Washout at Tattersalls Club, Sydney December 6, 2004. A footnoted edition of this speech is here…

I was very pleased to take up the opportunity of writing Washout, even if it did occur to me from time to time that attacking a score of the most renowned academics of the country may not be the smartest thing I have ever done. But whenever that thought struck me, I would re-read a Whitewash essay, and the pounding of another thought would start up again – if academics of such renown can get away with what they do in that book, then honest intellectual enquiry is finished in academia. Which means it will soon be finished in Australian intellectual life — which means (when we need them the most), there will be no rational intellectuals to stand in the way of the mystics and the nihilists.

I consider the issues involved no less crucial than that. Because Whitewash reveals more than an unscrupulous smear campaign to try to discredit Keith Windschuttle and preserve a fabricated black-armband history — it reveals also an assault on the very idea that there is any true history “out there” to be discovered.

On the one hand the academics proudly declare that they would “never claim to know what happened” in Australia a century or two ago, that their history books are “unavoidably political”, that they are “ always making up figures”, and that historical “truths” change according to the collective consciousnesses of the day. And on the other hand, despite this self proclaimed ignorance and prejudice, or because of it, they consider themselves entitled to use any means at their disposal to defend their “messy and bloody” story, as James Boyce calls it, and prescribe what is acceptable in history — not in terms of correct rules of evidence and analysis, but in terms of the present-past passions and political goals that are deemed correct by a scholarly consensus.

Some of the Whitewash contributors pay lip service to the search for objective truth – provided it is subordinate to multicultural sensitivities and politically correct goals. Others go a step further and quite explicitly reject the idea of there being one objective truth. But the differences between them are only a matter of how far they have progressed down a path set by the philosophies entrenched in our universities. They all merge to disparage Keith Windschuttle’s search for facts and a logical integration of those facts into an historical record of what happened in colonial Australia — because historical truth to them is not something to be discovered, but something to be negotiated.

If this sounds fanciful, it is – but the fantasy is not mine, it is the academics’. What I present in Washout is not my fanciful interpretation, opinion or supposition – nowhere do I ask the reader to believe anything because I say it is so, or even because Keith Windschuttle says it is so. What I do in Washout is point out what Windschuttle says, and what the academics say on the same issue, and put two and two together. But what the academics will consider naive about my approach, is that I refuse to accept that two and two can add up to three for you out of pity, and five for me because that would further a worthy cause, and three and a half for the scholarly consensus because that is their negotiated compromise. Because, contrary to Lyndall Ryan’s argument, two histories that contradict each other cannot both be correct. And contrary to Henry Reynolds’ belief, it is possible to be apolitical and record an unbiased account of historical events. And contrary to Greg Lehman’s theories, truth is not something you “conjure up” subjectively and authenticate socially. It is something you discover objectively, and identify rationally.

I believe Whitewash was a tactical mistake on the part of the orthodox historians and their supporters. If they had not published it, we could have assumed they had no credible answer to Keith Windschuttle’s exposure of their fabrications — but since they did publish it, we have the proof that they have no credible answer.

From the disgraceful ad hominem of Robert Manne; to the bluff and bluster of James Boyce; to the linguistic manipulations of Henry Reynolds; to the baseless rationalisations of Shane Breen; to the statistical tricks of Mark Finnane; to the contrived smears of Dirk Moses, Whitewash reveals an orthodoxy bereft of answers to the charge of fabrication, and woefully wanting of the integrity to acknowledge so and move on.

Washout takes the part of the boy in the story of the emperors’ new clothes, and declares the academic historians naked. You can discover just how intellectually naked they are by shuttling back and forth between Whitewash and Fabrication — or you can read Washout, which will point out the evidence and offer a reasoned analysis.

Thank you Keith for Fabrication, which flushed out Whitewash, which provoked Washout, and for publishing it under trying circumstances. Thank you Paddy McGuinness for publishing the articles in Quadrant that gave rise to my book. Thank you Frank Devine for your eloquent introduction; and thank you all for coming this evening. After you have read Washout, please feel free to track me down if there is anything in it you wish to ask or argue about.

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