Establishment Historians in Australia Are Strategizing to Defend Themselves from Another Attack by Keith Windschuttle

Roundup: Talking About History

Ean Higgins, in the Australian (July 22, 2004):

Who's still afraid of Keith Windschuttle By Ean Higgins THE AUSTRALIAN 22 July 2004 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. ...

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