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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ted particularly sharply in relation to fields such as agriculture, the Snowy Scheme, current mass migration, manufacturing industry, the postwar social and economic settlement, "elegaic" attachment to working class solidarity in the style of Russel Ward, and almost anything else that interferes with this Macintyre-Dixson version of modernising bourgeois British-Australia, with its naturally hegemonic "Anglo-Celtic core culture".

It is hardly necessary to point out how well this historical style and construction fits in, generally, with the perceived interests and strategic orientations of major fractions of the ruling class in rapidly "globalising" modern Australia.

Macintyre's mating of conservative British-Australia academic history with cultural studies produces an offspring in which the bad genes of both parents predominate.

 

Macintyre and racism

 

The "left" face of Macintyre's construction is a constant stress on past racist and sexist practices, particularly of the working class. In this way he makes ritual obeisance to the mood prevailing in the currently fashionable and powerful cultural studies and gender studies academic territories.

In discussing past racism and sexism, however, Macintyre rarely notes the activities of many minorities that have fought, often ultimately successfully, against racism and sexism. An exception to this neglect is when he ascribes the only important past activity against anti-Aboriginal racism to the Communist Party, which is really a quite unbalanced approach.

Australian history is peppered with all sorts of radical and religious groups and individuals who fought against racism. For the 19th century this is documented thoroughly in Henry Reynolds' most recent book, This Whispering in Our Hearts.

Macintyre's undialectical airbrushing out of almost all of the minorities that fought against racism tends to make the eventual overthrow of the White Australia Policy, and the legal removal of the bars to many Aboriginal rights, mysterious and inexplicable in his narrative, but it is entirely consistent with his dismissiveness towards most Australian popular movements.

 

Macintyre and the struggle for women's rights

 

Stuart Macintyre's treatment of sexism and the struggle for women's emancipation is worthy of note. He adopts the currently fashionable standpoint of some conservative feminists by giving extended recognition and praise to the 19th century temperance movement.

He notes the fact that Australian women got the vote in all states and the Commonwealth well before the rest of the world, but he hardly notices the fact that this was a direct product of the broad struggle in the Australian colonies for basic democratic rights, spearheaded in this instance by Australian feminists but largely accepted and even supported by civilised forces among Australian men.

This demonstrable and important political fact about women's rights in Australia does not prevent Macintyre from asserting a generally gloomy, rather inaccurate, but currently fashionable, proposition that Australia was more or less universally sexist in the past.

Needless to say, he pays no recognition to Portia Robinson's The Women of Botany Bay, an important work on convict women, and Grace Karskens' useful book, The Rocks: Life in Early Sydney (Melbourne University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-522-84722-6), both of which illustrate the way many convict women managed to improve their situation and assert their independence, and were by no means the totally hopeless, hapless victims that many historical narratives present them as.

Later, Macintyre blandly ascribes the achievement of equal pay for equal work for women to a ruling by the Arbitration Commission, ignoring the long popular movement, led mainly by women in the trade unions, that produced that Arbitration Court determination.

The lifelong agitation and effective organisation of trade unionists such as Muriel Heagney and Edna Ryan for equal pay and equal rights for women is abolished from Macintyre's narrative. This long struggle of women in Australia for equality and full social and economic rights, therefore tends to disappear against a backdrop of more or less universal sexism.

When reviewing the past, it is obvious that a lot of people were racist and sexist a lot of the time. What was significant and exceptional about the Australian experience, however, was the earliness of major achievements, such as the uniquely early achievement of votes for women, and the establishment of child endowment in the Lang period in New South Wales.

Despite the culturally prevailing sexism, material achievements such as this shifted the social norms dramatically and laid the basis for further improvements in women's rights and expectations, which ought to produce a more favourable assessment of past gains for women in Australia. Not so for our Stuart.

In the Concise History, official history out of cultural studies produces a very gloomy version of past women's struggles, which precludes much optimism in his concluding chapter about future improvements for women.

 

Macintyre isn't too keen on explorers

 

In Quadrant last year, there appeared an important and very detailed article on current educational problems by the disenchanted leftist, and now rather conservative educational historian, Alan Barcan. This article was an overview of the crisis in curriculum that has emerged in Australian education, particularly the teaching of history.

Some parts of Barcan's critique are useful and correct. One of his points with which I agree is that omitting from the history curriculum many of the basic historical facts that used to be taught is a big practical mistake. For instance, the exploration of Australia was part of the British imperial conquest of these colonies, but it was also an intrinsically important part of the historical record.

In his careful, ritual obeisance to cultural studies, Macintyre, however, follows the current fashion. Many of the explorers are eliminated from his narrative. No Hume and Hovell, no Edward John Eyre, etc, etc.

A populist or leftist Australian history could easily mention Eyre's discoveries and then make a point about British imperialism by mentioning in passing the barbarous aspects of his later career as governor of Jamaica, where he judicially murdered part of the population of a rebellious village.

None of this kind of thing for Macintyre, either the naming of most of the explorers, or the opportunity for the exposure of British imperialism.

Another feature of Macintyre's book is its careful middle-of-the-road character in its mating official history with cultural studies. All the populist historians I have mentioned at length here are left out, but so are the most extreme, but rather significant and influential postmodernists writing in Australian history.

Debates about Australian history don't make it into Macintyre's narrative either. Postmodernists such as Greg Dening, who wrote Mr Bligh's Bad Language, and Paul Carter, who wrote The Road to Botany Bay, irritate me with their extreme cultural studies style and analysis, but nevertheless there is no question that they are extremely influential in current Australian historiography. To leave them and their books out of the narrative and the bibliography, as Macintyre does, is almost as intellectually unbalanced as leaving out Russel Ward, Brian Fitzpatrick or Black Jack McEwan.

Macintyre is clearly trying to stake out an extremely conservative, centre ground, for his grey armband history, consolidating the major recognised conservative academic historians in a narrative and alliance with the more conservative practitioners of cultural studies, to produce a new academic orthodoxy.

The problem with this Macintyre academic orthodoxy is that it is almost unrecognisable as useful Australian history.

No Proletarian Science. Macintyre ditches dialectics. Rather conservative politics, little religion, and almost no sex

A close friend of mine who was brought up in a middle-class, conservative Protestant family environment often jokes, that in that social environment the basic rule of etiquette was that politics, religion and sex were not discussed in polite society, and this social code was quite frequently expressed explicitly in just those words.

In my view, Macintyre has managed to observe a fair part of this convention in his Concise History. Some politics are mentioned, but they are pretty, high politics with very little radical dissent recognised. There is almost no religion in the narrative, and I couldn't find much sex.

Macintyre's book suffers from a lack of robust dialectical juxtaposition of people and events. What I mean by this statement can be illuminated by comparing Macintyre to a range of other historians as diverse as Robin Gollan, Susanna Short, Robert Murray, Shirley Fitzgerald and Michael Cannon. With different standpoints, Marxist, left liberal, and conservative, all these historians produce powerfully interesting social history by proceeding in what Marxists generally describe as a dialectical way. They treat conflicting social groups and historical actors as important in their own right, try to describe how those people saw the world, and describe, in a warm-hearted way, the conflicts between these individuals and social groups.

Shirley Fitzgerald and Michael Cannon, describing social developments, urban history and economic d

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