New history wars

If you don’t live in Australia (and perhaps if you do) you may be unaware of the so-called History Wars that have been raging over the past few years.
I’ll go out on a limb and summarise it as a politicisation of history and historians in the battle over the analysis of European settlement of the continent, and over post-colonial reckoning – or otherwise – for the dispossession of the indigenous people.
It began as a right-wing backlash against the movement for reconciliation between black and white Australians, and became the perfect storm.
Conservative historians questioned the research and credibility of fellow academics; politicians, including the Prime Minister, waded in, accusing “chardonnay socialists” of having a “black armband” view of history; the Left and the liberals (perhaps we should say, humanists) struck back; and it’s all been a complete and very public schemozzle.
Floors and swords have been crossed, family dinners have erupted in arguments. I don’t often agree with Robert Manne, but in the middle of it all he wrote: “No reconciliation is possible unless we can discover a version of Australian history that can be shared.”
Of course, God and the malleable statistics are on everyone’s side. Intellectual rigour has sometimes been replaced with personal rancour, babies thrown out with bathwater all over the place, and the public left either confused or with their worst prejudices confirmed.
Me? I’d rather wear a black armband than be part of a whitewash any day. If only there was a proper Left left to carry on the debate…
But never mind about that. We’re now up to the second wave (or perhaps I missed a few ripples), in which novelists and historians are debating whether historical fiction might be more credible than history texts. You can tell it’s another wave, because journalists are writing lots of salacious stories about it, as if it were the Coronation Street of Australian intellectual life.
Novelist Kate Grenville claims her award-winning The Secret River is as close to the truth of early colonial settlement life as we’re likely to get. Historian Mark McKenna wonders if the public has lost faith in historians and placed it instead in the hands of writers of historical fiction. Other commentators take even more extreme views, as always.
McKenna’s right in one sense: the History Wars have undermined confidence in some historians and perhaps in the field as a whole.
But it hasn’t stopped the books selling. People clearly still have faith in Henry Reynolds, whose estimates of Aboriginal deaths after British colonisation were questioned by conservative historian Keith Windschuttle. Every Tim Flannery book is a best-seller. David Day is doing quite well. So, for that matter, is McKenna.
So people do want to read well-written, accessible, rigorous, interesting history. They want to understand, forgive, remember. If it comes in the form of soundly-researched historical fiction, that’s nothing new. Many of our greatest and most popular writers delve into the past (think of Peter Carey or David Malouf, Robert Drewe and Tom Kenneally). If it comes in a brilliantly written Inga Clendinnan history – splendid. For that matter, it might be more readily digested in a Judith Wright poem. Or a memoir. Or Manning Clarke’s magisterial History of Australia … If only he was still alive to bang some heads together.
McKenna is one of those engaged in the wars but apparently trying to effect a reconciliation before it all gets just too silly. After all, the dignity of his profession and the value of history are both being undermined. But he has a political point to make, too. He wrote recently in The Australian:

In this country, still so uncertain and divided about its past, we are at risk of creating a culture in which our literature and history is too often judged for its usefulness as an agent of national unity.

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