‘The colonial historical shark is far from extinct and continues to cruise our history beaches in search of prey.’ This is John Maynard, from the Wollotuka School of Aboriginal Studies at Newcastle University, speaking at a recent symposium ‘The History Wars: Factitous Fiction or Fictious Facts’ held at Queensland University of Technology.
The all-Indigenous line-up at QUT was a breath of fresh air and long overdue. The first of its kind, the event attempted ‘to put our own history back together.’ Notably absent were the warring generals: Windschuttle, Reynolds and Manne names synonymous with a series of heavyweight academic title fights staged across the continent in the last six years. But despite (or because of) this absence, the papers at symposium were the most sophisticated I had yet heard.
‘Psychic battles begin whenever we see a White person; they will have a memory of their space on the land,’ explained QUT Indigenous lecturer Jean Phillips. She told of her university students squirming as she confronted them with some of the contradictions in contemporary Black-White communication. Her course, known by some students as ‘the Abo subject,’ was compulsory, so there was no escape. Black-White conversations amounted to ‘asking you as a Black person to justify who you are on your own land to people who claim your land as theirs.’ It was those psychic battles created ‘just by our very presence’ that were ‘the foundation of the history wars.’
I never believed that such personal contradictions could not be worked through by intellectual and emotional mediation. A few jokes to loosen things up might help too. But then our National Leader has positioned himself not as mediator but as national stroker of the collective conscience. And his message is clear: no negotiation is necessary the black armbands and the white blindfolds can stay firmly on.
My conscience requires no stroking. I’m relaxed and comfortable about my identity. Tedious rantings about ‘national self-loathing’ by sections of the intelligentsia are insulting.
Granted, I’m sometimes irritated at being classified as a ‘European.’ Having never travelled there, my view of the continent is a benign one Europe to me is an imaginary place, perhaps akin to a daydreaming Westerner’s view of the Pacific islands as a languid, tropical paradise peopled by smiling natives ever ready to please (natives optional). These are commercially driven products of imagination, not history.
‘We fight those [history]wars every day,’ lamented Sue Stanton from Wollongong University, another speaker at the QUT conference. She believed the lack of Indigenous writers contributing to the history wars might be considered ‘deliberate’ is anyone interested in an Aboriginal view of their own past? The resistance to an Aboriginal voice in university curricula is put down to commentators and scholars on Indigenous issues often speaking from a belief that ‘there are no authentic Indigenous voices remaining.’
Then there was a surgical strike on Michael Connor’s book The Invention of Terra Nullius by two lawyers, Phillip Falk (Griffith University, and Kevin Williams (Newcastle University) who asked: Did the High Court justices in the Mabo case get it wrong or did Michael Connor? Thankfully, the answer seems to be within reach through the examination of facts and sound legal reasoning. Williams began by quoting Connor, ‘The Mabo judgment was set on a false foundation that Australian sovereignty and our legal system, when dealing with land, depended on a doctrine of terra nullius.’ The High Court did mention terra nullius but the Mabo decision, we heard, had ‘absolutely nothing’ to do with that doctrine. So why all the fuss?
Does Connor’s work belong in the canon of revisionist history or in the ideological dustbin? The Australian‘s coverage of Connor’s book has been one of gleeful enthusiasm. The newspaper’s editors were less than enthusiastic, however, when Kevin Williams submitted a response to the book. It never saw daylight.
I felt a twinge of anxiety when a prominent Indigenous leader (not in attendance) was chastised for being too much of a ‘whitefella.’ Is the best way to discredit a blackfella to call him a whitefella? Wasn’t it ‘identity denial’ that proved so destructive to Indigenous collective strength? And following a generalised put-down of non-Aboriginal teachers in remote schools, I asked one such teacher who’d done the hard yards in a Queensland primary school what she thought of the comment. She replied: ‘I felt like walking out.’
There were no ‘mainstream’ journalists reporting on the QUT symposium, including the cowed ABC. Why? Possibly because these stories don’t fit the frame in which ‘the history wars’ are being told. But these are precisely the stories that should demand attention and exploration.
Take, for example, the story that some landowners along the Kokoda Track lashed out at our National Leader for his statements against mining on his hallowed turf:
The trekkers have abused us and called us donkeys when they saw our women carry bilums [string bags]on their heads. They want to keep the pristine beauty and preserve the environment and continue to keep us as game for the affluent. They do not realise they are trespassing upon private property. If we walked into one of these tourist’s backyard he would pull a gun at us but that is what they are doing to us.
It is an irony of a high order that the PM’s history warriors often invoke 20th century mythologising of place (Galipoli, the Somme, Kokoda, etc) while seeking to deride sovereignty claims against resource development at home based on millennia of spiritual attachment to the land.
In Brisbane, I saw Indigenous researchers trying to find their voice not from the margins but through legitimated institutional channels slipping through the crevices of academe with doctorates and professorships. Without ignoring existing scholarship, the wellspring for their histories are the survivors who speak through several generations without needing to reference crimes against humanity from a 20th century European imagination.
Meanwhile, the latest Quarterly Essay is Inga Clendinnen’s ‘The History Question: Who Owns the Past?’ No longer a ‘war,’ Clendinnen explores a metaphor that is appropriately generational, not martial. She dissects historian John Hirst’s exculpation of present-day beneficiaries of conquest. Hirst cites Rudyard Kipling’s example of the fornicating father and the futility of the son mourning the circumstances of his own creation: ‘A man might just as well accuse his father of a taste in fornication (citing his own birth as an instance) as a White man mourn over his land’s savagery in the past.’
Clendinnen argues against this amoral realism (my term) and regards historians as having a special responsibility to examine such circumstances ‘in this case men and women who happen to be our predecessors, to discover what choices they had, what choices they made, and how we are to understand those choices.’
That the historian’s work might bear on our present choices (including moral ones) seems entirely unproblematic. It also seems possible that in the processing of such work, our minds can distinguish between concepts of shame and guilt. Shame is an emotion that can be felt by all but the most pitiless or corrupt. Unlike guilt, it need not connote direct personal responsibility. The manner of the telling of history and the faculties of the reader can produce the type of responses Kipling would condone on the one hand, or some form of ethical engagement on the other.
The history wars have some way to run. The organised entry into the fray of Indigenous researchers might mercifully defer any declaration of victory. In line with Clendinnen’s historical reasoni
ng, the result might just be stories we can all live with and own. As she puts it:
Agreed, it is futile to wring out hands over past brutalities and injustices, but we can seek to analyse them with sufficient delicacy to understand how it was that some individuals chose to commit brutal acts, and that others, in similar circumstances, did not; to examine how our fathers or any humans could entertain so narrowed a notion of humanity, so restricted a view of situation and choice, that they could inflict lethal injury so readily. We would then be better able to count the cost of our present comfort, and not take it as a gift of nature or (worse) as our natural due. We might even choose to try to alleviate those acts’ most damaging legacies.
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