Dumping down Australian history

As before, when confronted with the failure of millennial expectations, the left retreated into a nostalgic idealisation of national traditions.

Dumping down Australian history

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art Macintyre's grey armband history: "cultural history", very little human sympathy, and a general absence of dialectics

 

In the magazine, Overland, of May 1989, there is a full-page review by Stuart Macintyre of Russel Ward's important autobiography A Radical Life. The tone of this review is respectful and includes the following: "Finally, there is the story of how Russel Ward came to write The Australian Legend, that seminal codification of the national past... The Australian Legend distilled these experiences and explored their historical genesis, establishing Russel Ward as a leading member of what is called the Old Left. His leftism was real and passionate, and the scars left by victimisation are apparent as he rehearses his experiences at the hands of the cold warriors of the University of NSW. The book concludes with his appointment to the University of New England; the radical life continues."

It is useful to consider the context of this courteous and intelligent review. Macintyre's views had obviously not evolved so far to the right on historical matters as they have now. Macintyre then was more junior on the academic historical ladder, and Russel Ward was regarded quite rightly as a major Australian left democratic historian, at the height of his literary and historical powers.

In other articles around that time Macintyre repeated this kind of positive appraisal of The Australian Legend, which he had so harshly criticised in the 1970s. In the intervening decade between 1989 and 1999, the intellectual climate in Australian historiography has shifted to the right, Macintyre himself being one of the significant influences in that shift. All the radical democratic leftist historians whom Macintyre so condescendingly dismisses as the Old Left, except Robin Gollan, are now deceased, and obviously can't argue back without the use of a oiuja board, and Macintyre no longer proclaims himself as the representative of the New Left, as he once did.

Sniffing this colder, more reactionary atmosphere in Australian history, which he helped create, Macintyre now returns to pretty much what he said in the 1970s, expressed in a more radically conservative way. In his Concise History, on page 219, Macintyre writes:

As before, when confronted with the failure of millennial expectations, the left retreated into a nostalgic idealisation of national traditions. Its writers, artists and historians turned from the stultifying conformity of the suburban wilderness to the memories of an older Australia that was less affluent and more generous, less gullible and more vigilant of its liberties, less timorous and more independent. In works such as The Australian Tradition (1958), The Australian Legend (1958) and The Legend of the Nineties (1954), the radical nationalists reworked the past (they passed quickly over the militarism and xenophobia in the national experience) to assist them in their present struggles. Try as they might to revive these traditions, the elegaic note was clear. The radical nationalists codified the legend of laconic, egalitarian, stoical mateship just as modernising forces of change were erasing the circumstances that had given rise to that legend. While the radical romance faded, the conservative courtship of national sentiment prospered.

The pompous tone of the above speaks for itself. The authors of these influential books, Russel Ward, Vance Palmer and A.A. Phillips, are neither named, nor are their books mentioned, in Macintyre's bibliography or index.

They are treated by the overweening Macintyre as disembodied examples of a cultural trend, rather than, as they then were, living breathing historians, with a point of view of some importance. In retrospect, the working class solidarity that they "elegaicly" celebrated wasn't nearly as extinct as Macintyre claims.

The 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were in fact a period of constant improvement in working class wages and conditions, achieved, in the framework of the so called postwar settlement, by the well tried, and long practiced means of working class and trade union agitation. This involved sporadic use of industrial action combined with judicious exploitation of the arbitration mechanisms by unions.

These improvements of working class living standards, which were quite spectacular, were also advanced by the conflict and competition between left and right in the labour movement for support, which resulted in both general factions, in their own particular ways, pushing for and achieving steady incremental improvements for the working class.

The high point of this process was a result of the elimination of the penal clauses after the O'Shea upheaval in 1969, which led directly to the dramatic explosion of improvements in wages and conditions between 1972 and 1982 (which infuriated the Australian bourgeoisie).

Macintyre largely ignores this development, or even suggests it was not a good thing, in his implicit proposition that the postwar settlement was unsustainable. The few times when Macintyre's own, rather dry, prose becomes anything like elegaic, are when he is implicitly celebrating the end of the postwar settlement with the advent of globalisation, accords and deregulation of the financial system during the period of the Hawke and Keating governments.

 

"Cultural studies" meets and mates with conservative academic history, to produce a kind of mule: grey armband history

 

Like many other literate Australians I have gradually become enraged at the disdainful, dismissive, half-smart, supercilious tone of much of what is called, these days "cultural studies".

Keith Windschuttle's useful book, The Killing of History, (which Macintyre wisely ignores both in the Concise History and the bibliography), expresses in its title one of the main aspects of this cultural phenomenon.

The abstruse nature of a lot of "cultural studies", combined with the contemptuous tone often adopted towards popular culture and many other human activities, is a contributing factor to a decline in the number of students studying disciplines such as history, in which "cultural studies" is now so influential.

%20book,%20">I don't want to go overboard in this criticism of "cultural studies" and "gender studies", as a number of books and articles written in this idiom are both civilised and useful, for example, Raelene Francis's <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/lab/83/frances.html> book, The Politics of Work in Victoria, 1880-1940 (Cambridge University Press, Sydney, 1993), Peter Spearritt and David Walker's Australian Popular Culture, Bruce Scates's A New Australia, about the 1890s, and many others. Nevertheless, it seems to me that many books and articles in this area are abstract and trivial and contemptuous of popular social practices, and that unfortunately this mode is coming to dominate these two fields.

From the political right (John Howard, Michael Duffy and others) there is another kind of attack on Australian history, which deliberately makes an amalgam between cultural studies and important critical historians such as Henry Reynolds, Robert Hughes and others, and condemns all critical history wholesale: the very useful with the totally useless, accusing them all of producing "black armband history".

This attack by reactionaries such as Howard is assisted by the absurdist quality of much cultural studies in the field of history. In the interests of intellectual clarity and re-establishing Australian popular history in its proper critical role, I think it important to make a new distinction between the important "black armband" historians, such as Henry Reynolds, Robert Hughes, Manning Clark and Russel Ward, who make an enormous positive contribution to Australian culture, and another, more negative genre, to which I now officially give the title "grey armband historians".

The bloodline of grey armband history is conservative British-Australian official history as the stallion, with the most dismissive sort of cultural studies as the mare. Macintyre is the obvious candidate for major eminent person and head of the field in this significant new genre.

How grey armband history works

 

Stuart Macintyre's Concise History is a very instructive example of this new discipline, and how it is organised and constructed. Its intellectual antecedents include books like Ronald Conway's The Great Australian Stupor and Jonathan King's Waltzing Materialism, which were best-sellers a few years ago.

These books' unifying feature was a wholesale assault on the cultural and social practices of Australians, both working class and middle class, with an implicit standpoint derived from high culture, eternal verities and a uniformly unpleasant carping tone in their attacks on the allegedly fatally materialistic stream of Australian life.

Much of the cultural studies idiom in Australian history has taken over the standpoint and style of those two books in spades. The tone throughout Macintyre's Short History is, most of the time, distainful, grand and supercilious, particularly when discussing ordinary people's social practices and social life.

The exceptions to this emphasis are when Macintyre is discussing, rather reverently, the unifying nature of Anzac during the First World War, and the "modernising" activities of the Hawke and Keating governments.

This posture is adop

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