Windschuttle does White Australia
Have found it a great, even inspiring, read. It really brought home to me how tiring it is to read much contemporary academic work on Australian history and politics. It was so relaxing to read something which treats thought not fashionable with current academe intelligently, alive to the nuances. Which is aware that views have their critics. Which asks questions about what was, and was not, read and what did, and did not, have influence. Which is interested in genuinely understanding what people did and thought and why. Which does not write history as a tiresome game of goodies and baddies, of ‘who is more progressive?’, of moral display and Olympian sneering. The picture he paints of middle class and working class opinion sits far better with the historical record and contemporary experience than what has become the standard academic view.
Keith does not endorse the White Australia policy, he seeks to understand it and to counter the high level of historical misinformation in current school curriculums. Keith summarises his view here and in his interview on Classic FM with Jana Wendt. The interview makes it quite clear Keith wants to distinguish racism from xenophobia and other forms of intolerance, emphasise comparative judgements of Australia compared to other countries and that the White Australia policy always had critics (notably the Free Traders and the Catholic Church). That he has changed his view on such matters as a result of his research (in the case of aboriginal history, he was an adherent of the historical view he is now criticises) is also made clear. Keith also wants to emphasize, as he says in his launch speech, the extremism of conventional academic views. His notion that unchallenged views have become more intense certainly accords with social science research (scroll down) on the subject. He has also been on Counterpoint on Radio National about the book.
The book is also already generating a fair bit of controversy, notably on South Sea Islanders and blackbirding. Even on LJ.
Keith, a former academic, is pretty harsh on many academics in the book, arguing that they have systematically distorted the historical record for their own ideological, identity and status reasons. They already don’t like him. Richard Waterhouse from the University of Sydney, said academics took Windschuttle too seriously. "Sometimes we have tended to treat him as an intellectual equal," Waterhouse said, adding that sarcasm might be more appropriate. (Windschuttle earned a first-class honours degree in history from the University of Sydney in the 1960s, lectured in the subject, earned a masters in politics and left Macquarie University in 1992, whereupon he set up a publishing house.)
I remember watching a March 2003 debate at Victorian Trades Hall between Keith and Professor Pat Grimshaw, who made a point of constantly referring to him, with emphasis, as Mr Windschuttle. She was much more interested in denouncing the allegedly wicked political implications of his work on Aboriginal history than actually dealing with the scholarly issues. Opinion-as-status-marker and Ph.D-as-ticket-to-play were well on display.
One can see from the reaction the failings of contemporary academe, how it fosters an approach to pedagogy that narrows the mind and expands the ego in mutually reinforcing ways. Keith’s book charts the change in academic attitude to the working class from being "the proletariat" to being "rednecks". One of the themes of the book is that pre-1960s historians tended to get the history of the White Australia policy correct.
In his analysis of the trade in indentured Melanesian labourers in Queensland – which was nothing remotely like a slave trade – Keith demolishes the contemporary myth (which, in this case, academics were not responsible for) that colonial and Federation legislators and officials were appalling barbarians overseeing a system of actual or quasi-slavery, a retrogression from the Imperial abolition of slavery in the 1830s. On the contrary, although some kidnapping did occur, especially early on, Queensland and other legislators extensively regulated the trade precisely to ensure that the letter and spirit British Imperial law abolishing slavery was upheld.
I particularly like the way Keith treats the Free Traders intelligently. One of my markers of academic crapness is the labelling of the Free Traders as "conservatives". They had a competing vision of human progress other than the ‘the state should do it’. One that has proved sounder and more enduring than that of their protectionist and socialist rivals.
To summarise Keith’s central thesis:
(1) From the beginning, Australia as a European settlement was ethnically & racially varied with convicts and settlers being racially varied from the start (a matter obscured by the fact race was of little moment, so little commented on).
(2) The dominating idea-traditions were evangelical Christianity and the (Scottish) Enlightenment, both of which propounded universalist ethics. They were the basis of a civic patriotism which has been the real core of Australian identity.
(3) The British Imperial government always took the view that they were ruling a multi-ethnic empire and that Imperial laws applied equally to everyone.
(4) Racist ideology only cohered from the 1850s onwards and was never a large factor in Australian life. Where it was strongest was the bohemian intellectuals centred on The Bulletin, in socialist circles (particularly those interested in eugenics) and in the ALP. Those most opposed to it included the classical liberals.
(5) The Liberals started dismantling the policy in the 1950s when Harold Holt was Immigration Minister. Keith notes the Presbyterian Church had completely opposed the policy in the 1940s and, although he doesn't mention this, the Presbyterian influence in the Victorian Liberal Party in particular was very significant.
(6) Such racial differentiation as did take place – in the C19th it was specifically anti-Chinese – was motivated overwhelmingly by economic concerns – most commonly, concern for cheap labour undermining wages and conditions – followed by democratic ones – that creation of an ethnically-distinct underclass would undermine the new Australian democracy.
(7) Racial violence was extremely limited and the worse race-riots did not involve whites.
(8) White Australia was discarded far too easily for a race-based nationalism to have been a deep part of Australian identity.
Which all seems about right to me, and Keith certainly adduces an impressive amount of evidence. The White Australia Policy is a great place to become genuinely acquainted with Australian history.