Wednesday 24 September 2003

The History Wars

Janet Albrectsen in The Australian describes a recent phenomenon that is causing a quiet revolution in the study of History - and perhaps other fields of knowledge. It's probably no coincidence that it has happened at a time when academic empowerment has become Democratised to an extent never before seen on the planet. There are now literally hundreds of millions of people on the Internet - all with the equivalent of an unlimited library card with access to primary sources.
The study of History is now longer solely in the hands of the New Aristocrats - the Pundits who by virtue of lifelong study in an incestuous little coterie all tend to think along the same conventional, fashionable lines. Now oft-times this doesn't mean they are wrong. But it has meant that they've been unchallenged in their assumptions.
More than seven years of living in the nerdorium has produced a vigorous debate about issues once banished from the national conversation. Dare one call it a golden age? Under Howard, the nerds have started asking questions. And historians like Stuart Macintyre want it to stop. Yet he should be chuffed at how history is filling our newspapers, sparking debate, piquing our interest.

According to Macintyre's latest book, The History Wars (co-authored with Anna Clark), 1996 marks the official arrival not of the nerds but of the History Warriors. If we must persist with Macintyre's war-like imagery, the most you can call it is Revenge of the Nerds.

As new Prime Minister, Howard had the audacity to criticise "the attempt to rewrite history in the service of a partisan political cause". Macintyre takes great offence at this. It suggests historians have betrayed their duty to objectivity, he says. Yet Macintyre stakes out a deeply partisan position as he invokes the language of war.

Macintyre's partisan battleground ledger reads like this – Howard's "wedge politics" v Keating's "diversity and tolerance". Howard's "strategy of refusal" v Keating's "egalitarian generosity". Howard's "necklace of negatives" up against Keating's Big Picture.

By the concluding chapter, the History Warriors have become "neo-conservative ideologues", the "right-wing polemicists", the "Australian deniers" of the stolen generations, the bullies who "intimidate" and "impugn motives", the opinionated columnists (that's me), those who write with the ring of a Stalinist ideologue (Gerard Henderson), the History War Crusaders, the "fundamentalists" who hand down "arbitrary edicts" and "ridicule and abuse" their opponents. The History Warriors launch "pre-emptive strikes" and use "weapons of mass destruction". This is not the language of a dispassionate historian. This is political advocacy dressed up as history.

War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength
The problem is that much Historical Literature has been exactly like this - political advocacy that sees events through a distorting lens, one that colours the whole picture. Things have gotten to the stage where it has been claimed by the mainstream Post-Modernists that there is no "Reality" to perceive, all is bias, spin and cultural artefact, so there's no point trying to be "Objective" : Falsehood is Truth, Ignorance is Strength, Freedom is Slavery, Bush = Hitler.

Such arguments are now most often adduced by the Left, but historically, it was the Moonbat Right that invented the concept. "The Triumph of the Will", the precept that all Reality is Malleable to the Ubermensch - or, slightly later, the New Communist Man. But the Gods of the Copybook Headings will not be denied, as shown by the Economic Tragedy in Zimbabwe.
Let this History Warrior suggest that conjuring up the imagery of war – an immoral war &ndashl; is misplaced. This is a healthy and long overdue exchange of views, sometimes heated, sometimes vitriolic, but a debate. Nothing more, nothing less.

If it feels brutal, like war, it is because in their antebellum world historians like Macintyre were free from real debate for too long. They have forgotten what it feels like to have your arguments probed and challenged and, in some cases, destroyed.

I'm not saying that the Leftist-Agenda'd Professional Historians are wrong: I'm saying that they should at least make a paltry effort to prove their case using objective fact, rather than presenting the comfortable, mainstream opinion as incontravertable Holy Writ, to question which is Heresy. They may well be right - but without proof, or even a good argument, how are we to know?
In Macintyre's history wars, the aggressors refuse to accept, holus-bolus, Ronald Wilson's claim about a stolen generation of indigenous children. They are aggressors for suggesting flaws in Wilson's Bringing Them Home report : flaws that were exposed when the Federal Court rejected the test cases of Peter Gunner and Lorna Cubillo.

The next aggressor in Macintyre's war is Windschuttle, who challenges the orthodox view of genocide of Tasmanian Aborigines and the extent and nature of frontier warfare in Fabrication. How astounding that Macintyre, the historian, offers only a passing nod to Windschuttle's profound contribution in checking sources and uncovering serious errors of fact that for too long have shaped the teaching of indigenous history. Admittedly that nod is more than academics such as Robert Manne can manage.

In response to Windschuttle's expose, Lyndall Ryan admitted to Channel Nine's Sunday program on May 25 that "historians are always making up figures". Why is it war to expect that, if historians are going to make guesses about events and the number of Aboriginal deaths, they tell us they are guessing? Watson told The Weekend Australian: "Windschuttle should be put in a bag and thrown in the Murray." So much for free debate. John Stuart Mill would hand out F grades to these intellectuals.

Macintyre is surely entitled to think us nerds for the views we have, but he is not entitled to try to close down debate by casting it in terms of an unjust war. Indeed, he'd better get used to it. The nerds are here to stay.

And we'll fact-check your asses. Some of us will even have the guts to publish the results even when they contradict our own long-cherished prejudices and misconceptions. Sadly, some of us won't - bloggers in particular tend to read opinions they agree with, and fractionate into the same cosy little insider's clubs that have been the bane of Academe. And those on the Right are just as prone to this - maybe even more prone - as those on the Left. We all need our views to be challenged. Not by Propaganda and Unsubstantiated assertion, but by facts. The peril is not that the Covens of the Cognoscenti will snatch back the control that they have lost; they've already lost, although they don't know it yet. The great danger is that we, the Nerds, will become what we're fighting against - a groups of like-minded, closed-minded arrogant and proudly ignorant punditocracies. As Nietzsche said :
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

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