The 'fabrication' of Aboriginal history

Repudiating the past

John Quiggin

As with many others on the left of Australian politics, my first encounter with Keith Windschuttle came with his book Unemployment. The book presented a fairly standard left/Marxist account of the causes and effects of unemployment. Its most notable contribution was not the analysis of unemployment as such, but its careful dissection of the media-driven hysteria about 'dole bludgers'. Windschuttle's analysis of right-wing bias in the media was developed further in his 1984 book The Media.

Obviously, the notion of bias implies that there is some criterion of an objective search for truth, against which bias can be measured. Precisely this claim was rejected by the postmodernists who came to dominate large segments of academic life in the 1980s, following widespread disillusionment with the variants of Marxism (notably Althusser's ultratheoretical Stalinism) that had previously held currency in the same circles.

It was not surprising, therefore, that Windschuttle should attack the postmodernist domination of fields like history in his 1994 The Killing of History. It was also not particularly surprising that in doing so he should gain the applause of the many conservatives who opposed postmodernism, either on the basis of an old-fashioned methodological commitment to objective truth or under the wholly mistaken impression that postmodernism represented a threat, rather than a capitulation, to the supremacy of capitalism. What was harder to predict was that Windschuttle himself would abandon his previous political position and swing to the far-right, embracing an amalgam of views ,including economic rationalism, political Christianity and the cultural superiority of the West.

There were, to be sure, warning signs in The Killing of History. Even readers sympathetic to the general thesis found it to be taken to an unsustainable extreme. Not content with attacking the likes of Foucault and Derrida, he denounced Thomas Kuhn and even Karl Popper (the most prescriptive writer on scientific methodology of modern times) as mushy relativists. His implied viewpoint, based on the work of David Stove, seems to be one in which truth can be directly apprehended without any problem of reliance on fallible observational theories. This position is obviously untenable and leads straight to absurdities such as Stove's defence, reproduced on Windschuttle's website, of the crank pseudoscientist Immanuel Velikovsky (author of Worlds in Collision, among many others).

Applied to history, Windschuttle's version of Stove is that truth can be ascertained directly from documentary evidence - a claim that was discredited in the Middle Ages when the famous "Donation of Constantine" was found to be a fake. As any Popperian would point out, documents are nothing without an 'observational theory' that explains how to infer historical reality from potentially unreliable sources. Of course, even Windschuttle admits that some documents are untrustworthy (for example, the writings of his opponents), but apparently right-thinking people such as himself are gifted with a special insight that enables him to dispense with the fallibilism of 'irrationalists" like Popper, and to go straight to the truth. Most importantly, Windschuttle's model enables him to disregard oral evidence, even from eyewitnesses, thereby ruling out of court almost the whole of the Aboriginal side of Australian history.