AS the elite of the nation’s academic historians met in the stately rooms of the Newcastle Town Hall, fear and loathing lurked the corridors.
The Australian Historical Association spent virtually an 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? How could anyone survive when the mass media was in on the conspiracy?
Over 18 months after Keith Windschuttle published his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, the academic world is still anguishing over its impact. It is terrified of what he will do next. Windschuttle struck at the heart of the accepted view of Australian colonial history in the past 30 years—that the settler society had engaged in a pattern of conquest, dispossession and killing of the indigenous inhabitants. The facts, he said, did not stack up.
The Sydney-based writer, among other things, questioned the references used by academic historian Lyndall Ryan to justify her claims that the British massacred large numbers of Aborigines in Van Diemen’s Land in the early 1800s. Her footnotes supporting the claims did not do so, he wrote.
He also took on Henry Reynolds, the venerable historian of the Left, whose depiction of a brutal British conquest of Tasmania had been the accepted norm.
Reynolds’s work on the concept of terra nullius—that the British seized Aboriginal land based on a policy that it was owned by no one—developed such currency that it is believed to have influenced critical High Court judgments on land rights, including the Mabo decision. The thrust of Windschuttle’s thesis was that political correctness had triumphed over historical fact.
With the passage of time, the academic history profession is far from over the history wars. An extraordinary number in its ranks believe they have been 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.
At the recent conference, Ryan made some effort, though ultimately unsuccessful, to avoid media coverage for a talk she gave entitled How the Print Media Marketed Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Implications for Academic Historians.
She said the media had taken up Windschuttle as representing the real history of colonists’ relations with Aborigines, grabbing the view that Australians had been hoodwinked by the academic left-wing historians’ version. “I don’t think the media owns free speech,” Ryan said. She had also been shocked, she said, that Stuart Macintyre, the influential left-leaning University of Melbourne historian, had appeared to criticise her over footnote inaccuracies.
She did admit to five footnote errors, but said the primary sources verified her thesis and “the simple fact is that footnote errors do occur”.
Her abstract said: “The AHA and universities need strategies and protocols in place to address future assaults on academic historians.”
Ryan was not alone in promoting the Windschuttle-media conspiracy. The AHA president, David Carment, said the The Australian had deliberately timed the publication of its review of Windschuttle’s work for the summer of 2002. During holidays more academics were on leave, Carment said, and “less able to defend themselves,” and it was “a time when people were reading newspapers”. (In fact, newspaper circulations fall away over summer holidays.)
It might be time, Carment said, for the association to “defend its people on the basis of their professional integrity” while not taking sides in the debate.
Carment also raised, though he did not fully support, the concept put forward by West Australian historian Cathie Clement for a code of ethics that would gag historians from criticising the integrity of their peers in public. Several in the audience said everyone had to be ready to counter-attack when Windschuttle came out with his next book.
Richard Waterhouse from the University of Sydney, said academics took Windschuttle too seriously. “Sometimes we have tended to treat him as an intellectual equal,” Waterhouse said, adding that sarcasm might be more appropriate. (Windschuttle earned a first-class honours degree in history from the University of Sydney in the 1960s, lectured in the subject, earned a masters in politics and left Macquarie University in 1992 when he set up a publishing house.)
There were a couple of muted mutterings from the audience about how it would be necessary to learn media skills, and not attempt to look like academics defending their own cabal. But nobody at the session publicly asked the key question which was in some of their minds: was the academic historians’ fear of Windschuttle and newspaper opinion pages absolutely paranoid?
Greg Melleuish, from the University of Wollongong, says he is intimidated by the pack mentality of the Newcastle meeting. “I was quite astonished,” he says. “It was like ‘let’s get a group of people together to ambush Windschuttle’. I think they feel under threat and that’s why they concoct these conspiracy theories.”
Other historians have expressed alarm at the attitude of their peers, including classical studies historian Ronald Ridley at the University of Melbourne. “The way they have shut down the debate, if they have made some errors, is really appalling,” he says.
“I don’t think any historians of Greek or Roman history would make these mistakes. And when you deal with issues such as indigenous history, the politics are red hot. You don’t just have to be a competent historian, you have to be top class.”
The question is why academic historians are so concerned about the impact of Windschuttle.
Macintyre, while he does not accept Windschuttle’s suggestion of a fabrication, does warn that mistakes can have a broader effect.
“There is an understandable public concern about the accuracy of historians’ work,” he says. At the same time, Macintyre maintains, Windschuttle fits with a conservative agenda to lift a burden of national shame from Australian shoulders over the Aboriginal issue.
Macintyre told the conference the history wars fitted in with broader “political dimensions” of the Howard Government’s “abandonment of reconciliation, denial of the stolen generations, its retreat from multiculturalism and creation of a refugee crisis”.
“Windschuttle was the first conservative intellectual to base his case on substantial historical research,” he says.
Windschuttle says this is precisely why the academic community is still so scared of him. “There is a whole generation who have invested not just their academic capital but also their political capital in the Henry Reynolds view,” he says. And, says Windschuttle, he has made Australian history interesting again for high school students who are more likely to go on to study it in universities.
While not referring to the Windschuttle debate, NSW Premier Bob Carr, a longstanding history buff, said much the same thing at the conference.
“History is an argument and the more argument there is in it the more young people will read it,” he said.