Friday, 31 January 2014

Sense and Nonsense in Australian History

By John Hirst

You cannot spit in the CBD without hitting a right wing economist. Right wing historians are a rarer breed; a matter which John Winston Howard occasionally adverts to in his rare moments of leisure. Even rarer still is the intellectually respectable right wing historian – Keith Windschuttle does not count – and this makes John Hirst a figure of considerable interest.

Sense and Nonsense in Australian History  is a collection of Hirsts essays from the mid seventies. They are published in Robert Manne’s Black Inc. Agenda series. The collection has the merits and vices of the essay form: clear arguments produced at convenient length but often tendentious and inadequately substantiated. The latter vice is made worse by Hirst’s decision not to reproduce the references from the original essays. Generally speaking, the longer his pieces are the more thoughtful and interesting they become.

Hirst is at his best in his area of specialisation: convict and colonial  Australia. His insight into the limitations on the power of convict masters and the humanising consequences for the society engendered by the convict system are not now as startling as when they first came out, largely because the perspective has been popularised with some gory embellishment in Hugh’s The Fatal Shore.

He is at his weakest when trying too hard to be controversial. To this end he has an annoying tendancy to erect straw men so as to knock them down. In his essay Australia’s Absurd  History he attacks  multiculturalism by positing a form of it that is unrecognisable (unbridled cultural relativism). And yet Hirst clearly welcomes immigration; his concern is that the so called ‘Anglo’ contribution be properly acknowledged.

In How Sorry Can We Be he asserts that it is ‘morally impossible’ for the beneficiaries of the dispossession of the aborigines (ie all of us) to regret or apologise for the conquest. This is mere word play and rather unhelpful. More to the point the variety of settlement experiences in Australia (which largely explains the widely varying demographic fate of different indigenous populations even in closely settled areas) does not support Hirst’s premiss: that  dispossession was always and everywhere accompanied by the same atrocities. We cannot regret that we live here; we can apologise for arsenic in waterholes and the systematic practice of ‘dispersal’.  And yet Hirst is not a fan of Windschuttle’s sanitised version of our history. His views on the nexus between contemporary aboriginal culture (outside areas where traditional society survived somewhat intact) welfare and the intractable problems in health and other outcomes experienced are worth serious consideration. They prefigure the views expressed by Aboriginal leaders such as Noel Pearson in more recent times.

The first duty of a historian is to be sceptical of conventional wisdom in all its forms. That includes the holy cows of chardonnay sipping basket weavers. John Hirst has spent the last thirty years discharging that duty. Sense and Nonsense in Australian History is essential reading for anyone interested in the ongoing history wars and, properly considered, everyone else too.

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