Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Greg Melleuish, Chairman Rudd, the history wars, the black armband and the joys of chasing your tail

(Above: the black arm band view of romance).

Where would we be without Greg Melleuish in The Australian?

Follow this logic if you can:

The so-called history wars were bad:

Some historians in the 1970s and 80s forgot that their role was to inquire into the past and provide as accurate a view of it as possible. For them history was the handmaiden of politics, to be used to support contemporary causes...

...This is not the purpose of studying history. Historians seek to understand the past, to gain an appreciation of how and why people acted in the way they did.

But:

...there will always be history wars because historians, as with scientists, will invariably differ about the interpretation of evidence. This sort of disagreement is a healthy aspect of a liberal democratic society.

So we seek the truth about the past, but because the past will always be refracted through present perspectives and prejudices, the past is a moveable feast. History wars are bad, but there will always be history wars.

There's been a lot of choking of toast around here recently, but Melleuish's column Leave history alone led to frequent deployment of the Heimlich Maneuver.

For a start, I'm not so sure what we've done to history that sees it want to do a Greta Garbo and demand to be left a loam (I know, I know, it's a shocking pun, but don't blame me, blame vaudeville).

History's big enough to stand a little intellectual debate. Why it's even big enough to withstand Mr. Melleuish's attempt to mingle baby boomers, birth dates and astrology (more on that here).

Of course what's really got Greg Melleuish going is the usual. Chairman Rudd.

Kevin Rudd's speech launching Thomas Keneally's Australians: Origins to Eureka has left me scratching my head. It is an odd piece. For example, it includes the statement: "The love for history is, I believe, the handmaiden of country." I have thought hard about what this means but I still do not have a clue; it is just meaningless sludge.

But does that explain why Melleuish himself indulges in some verbal sludge by using handmaiden himself? Remember?

For them history was the handmaiden of politics, to be used to support contemporary causes.

Well thank the lord I have never once used the past to argue a current point. Cross my heart and hope to die (yep, that clunk was the sound of the writer expiring and falling to the floor).

Actually I think both hand maidens are pretty obvious. Chairman Rudd's is the usual 'patriot as scoundrel' suggestion that if you love your country, you should read up on its history, which can lead to a somnolescent state in some, especially if contemplating the birth and growth of that convict free colony known as South Australia. While Mr. Melleuish somehow thinks that some perverted historians like to shack up history with contemporary causes in an out of wedlock fornicating way.

Well being something of a cultural warrior himself, he'd know all about that, but even so it's piquant to read his damning list of failed historian prophets, which includes Manning Clark and Henry Reynolds (a tad old testament) and Geoffrey Blainey (inclined to the new testament, three cheers to the paracletes school of writing).

Mr. Melleuish gets himself into quite a lather about how problematic this all is. First the damning of Chairman Rudd continues:

Rudd wants to go beyond "the arid intellectual debates of the history wars". But surely the study of history moves forward only when it engages in intellectual debates, when present interpretations of the evidence are challenged and their inadequacies exposed. Rudd wants to bring the two interpretations, the "black armband" and the "three cheers", together in a love-in. He wants a history that "unapologetically celebrates the good. A history that unapologetically exposes the bad." The problem with this is that he is perpetuating the facile view that the study of history is all about making moral judgments. For him, history is about alternately cheering and booing the past.

Well actually I don't think Chairman Rudd was saying that all. In fact, if you want to find out what Chairman Rudd was actually saying, you might - as would any decent historian - like to consult a primary source. Namely Mr. Rudd's actual speech, which you can find here.

But let's not let an actual report of the actual usual two bob each way political speechifying get in the way of Mr. Melleuish's version of reality:

The history wars to which Rudd refers long predate the prime ministership of John Howard. They came to public prominence because the agenda of the black-armband brigade was taken up by Paul Keating as part of his "big picture". Their willingness to use history for political purposes provided useful ammunition for Keating on matters such as indigenous affairs, the republic and multiculturalism. Howard was essentially reacting to what he saw as the extreme nature of Keating and his ideological supporters. Rather than going beyond this division, Rudd's approach indicates that he is intent on entrenching it. He seems to think that historical inquiry consists of a constant cycle of celebration and condemnation.

This is not the purpose of studying history. Historians seek to understand the past, to gain an appreciation of how and why people acted in the way they did.

Um. I got lost there. Historians are somehow objective embodiments of an objective understanding of the past? Unlike the fiercely contending Keating and Howard, we must stand above the ruck?

Historians who begin with moral presuppositions, whose concerns are primarily with contemporary political issues, will invariably fail in their endeavour. They will lack the empathy to understand the actions of humans who were quite different from them.

Hmm, that's going to be a little tricky. Seems like it might require what we could call a terra nullius kind of historian. Of the kind who has no moral presuppositions, who has no interest in contemporary political issues, for fear that they might contaminate an intrinsic understanding and emapthy with the past. Seeing as how they were quite different, those old folks.

It certainly precludes astrologers from the ranks of historians, especially when the astrology is used to divide the failed from the successful, the losers from the winners, and the boomers from the rest (boomers bad, like appearances over principle, damage country, moral judgment. Make Hulk angry, very angry).

The division of the past into good and bad events is futile. Sometimes bad things happen through no one's fault. For example, the British settlers were not responsible for the diseases they carried with them that wreaked havoc in the indigenous population.

Well that's a relief. Next time I contemplate the holocaust I'll remember that it's quite futile to divide it into a bad event.

It is not the job of the historian to right the wrongs of the past. They are not prophets, nor will the nation be redeemed if it collectively repents the actions of a past generation. Responsibility for actions in the past lies with the individuals who made them, not with those living decades or centuries after those actions.

Wow. That's even better. And there I was thinking I'd be able to go back in my newly invented time machine, assassinate Hitler and prevent World War II. Sob, you mean I can't right the wrongs of the past? Not even - as the Germans after World War II did - admit that a few naughty things went down?

No, no, none of that, nor any collective repentance, though collective celebration on Australia Day is really quite okay, provided these days you don't bash up late comers to these fine shores. Nope, it's all the fault of grand dad and grandma, and don't you worry about any of that. Sure you might think someone who killed someone forty years ago might still be brought to account - isn't that why they leave murder always open - but really why bother.

While contemplating history without a moral compass, I can also do a Pontius Pilate about anything else that went down. No need to repent slavery, no reason for the Germans to have any guilt about the Nazis, no need to think there might be some kind of continuum in human activity and thinking. It's all in the past, locked away in a tidy cupboard, in which objective historians can frolic, fiercely indifferent to any assessment of the rights and wrongs of the past. Massacres, holocausts, wars, colonization, murders, assassinations, 9/11, bring it all on. Nothing to do with me. Not to someone living years and years after those actions.

The reduction of historical inquiry to moral instruction is not the only piece of muddled thinking in Rudd's speech. He claims that "history is the memory of a nation", that memory "informs and shapes behaviour" and that this "collective memory of the past" is the foundation on which the future is built.

The only problem is that memory is not history. Memory is simply unreliable. The role of the historian is to interrogate the past, to inquire and investigate, to check if the "memory of the nation" is true or false. Their job is to establish, as far as they can, what actually happened. Often they will disagree because they will interpret the available evidence in different ways.


Oops, interrogate the past! That's sounding so ... well, it has to be said, French ... or even worse, like Henry Reynolds when he talks about societies who suffered under oppressive regimes wanting to discover their history:

A central concern of the societies in question was to investigate and interrogate the past in order to prevent a return to the tyrannies, whether practised by communist party officials, death squads or police and para-military forces of right-wing dictatorships.

(If you want more Henry Reynolds on history, though be warned it could send you into a moral prophetic time warp of subjectivism, you can read the rest of that paper here).

And as for the inability to actually work out the truth about the past? It sounds quite existentialist, even bleak. All that interrogation, and we fail because memory is fallible.

So inevitably we return to that central salient point which suggests everything that Mr. Melleuish has offered up is just idle blather:

In this sense there will always be history wars because historians, as with scientists, will invariably differ about the interpretation of evidence. This sort of disagreement is a healthy aspect of a liberal democratic society.

So history wars are inevitable and healthy. Well roll on Chairman Rudd and dissemble as much as you like, pretending to move on - past the history wars - as a clever way of maintaining the history wars. No argument there. Oops, wrong again.

Unfortunately, Rudd's speech does nothing to assist Australia's history wars to move from an unhealthy obsession with cheering or booing the past to one in which there is informed intellectual debate. If anything, his speech encourages the unhelpful idea that the real purpose of history is serve moral and political concerns.

But, but ... the history wars and such disagreements are a healthy aspect of a liberal democratic society. Cheering and booing the past according to our preferences, and as frequently indulged in by Mr. Melleuish himself.

Ever felt like a dog chasing its tail? Read Greg Melleuish and you'll understand that Chairman Rudd is the tail, and you can whirl and twist and turn in the breeze for as long and as hard as you like, provided you end up catching the tail.

Of course you never do, but that's the great fun of chasing tails while thinking you're talking about the business of history ...

(Below: the regrettable influence of the black arm band view of history. First FDR wearing one for his mother, Calvin Coolidge putting it on for Warren G. Harding, and Dr. Joseph Moloney mourning the loss of his leader Captain William Stairs on the Stairs Expedition to Katanga in 1891-92 Will no one ever rid of this black arm band approach to the past?).




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