AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE - REVIEW
The White Australia Policy
Macleay Press, 2004
Before presenting the review Keith Windschuttle’s latest book that I broadcast on the ABC’s Book Talk on 29th January 2005, I should declare a personal interest. It seems that it is all my fault. My 1970 book, A New Britannia, established the “Paradigm of the Sixties Generation”. Outside the four pages where Windschuttle attributes so baleful my influence, I have to say that I come off fairly lightly. None of my subsequent writings has been touched.
However, Windschuttle alleges that I, along with his bete noir Henry Reynolds, pushed the racist line to advance my career. This method, he explains, is how the young get on. One’s own memory of motivation is the most fallible of guides after 35 years, so I shall say nothing in my own defence. However, the accusation of careerism has alerted me another possibility. Was my offence that I got in first, occupying the place that Windschuttle had his own eye on at the time? Alternatively, was he a slow developer who, in defiance of the wisdom of that true conservative, Sam Johnson, as laid down at the start of Rasselas, expects “that age will perform the promises of youth”? I can no more believe that Windschuttle has devoted his declining years to the refutation of conventional wisdom for reasons of vanity than I want to believe that my motives had been similarly base.
On that score, Windschuttle goes some way to putting my mind at rest. Alongside the careerism, he accuses me of sundry political offences, summed up as Maoism. Warming to his charge sheet, he declares that “They” did this dreadful thing and that “they” believed that terrible idea. My memory is that Windschuttle’s “they” should be “we”, for Keith was once a jolly comrade. And here it is not just my self-serving memory. From May 1970 to March 1971, Sydney students produced a newspaper called “Old Mole”. This title was taken from a remark by Karl Marx: “We recognise our old friend, our old mole, who knows so well how to work underground, suddenly to appear: the Revolution”. First among equals on Old Mole’s editorial Soviet was someone calling himself Keith Windschuttle who attacked the Beatles’s latest release, Let It Be, as “Nowhere Men”, winding up his review through an attack on Revolution with its dismissal of “carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow”. Windschuttle doubted that the Beatles could “resolve the question of what to think about Chairman Mao”.
Revolution, in fact, was counter-revolutionary, and Nina Simone has done the left a service in rewriting it. “Yes, I’m talking about destruction/ Of all the evil in the world”, she sings…
In view of recent events, it is no longer possible to believe that it is enough just to imitate the buoyant optimism of the Beatles or to live as they do. It is no longer a matter of music but rather one of betrayal. They come off with a whining affirmation of their own values – all you need is love or Mother Mary or Instant Karma – while the kids build barricades in the streets.” (Old Mole, ??? 1970, p. 10)
Everyone is entitled to switch sides. But it is a bit rich to accuse other people of hypocrisy while you are erasing your own engagement in the crimes and follies that you are now denouncing.
While on the subject of student activism, it is worth pointing to an element in the demise of White Australia which Windschuttle ignores. The public face of the campaign began during the 1961Federal elections when a group of students at the University of Melbourne formed “Student Action” with the aim of ending the racially biased immigration programme. Although the leaders believed in that cause, they had another aim – namely, the removal of the hard Left Victorian Central Executive of the ALP. As their leader, Bill Thomas, explained the plan to me in Brisbane in January 1962, they had picked on White Australia as a way of driving a wedge between Jim Cairns and Arthur Calwell, which would split the Left-wing State Executive, provoking Federal intervention. Thomas claimed to have to backing of several University of Melbourne academics, notably Frank Knoffelmacher, Donald Horne at the Bulletin, and the U.S. Embassy, presumably through its Labor Attaché.
Let’s be clear about what Windschuttle is proposing. He’s not claiming that Australia has been free of racism. Whenever he identifies its presence, he condemns it as forcefully as would any of his target academic historians. Nothing in this volume should be used to convict its author of racism. There are places where he might be accused of insensitivity but those spots, I suspect, are failures of the intellect more than of ethics.
Some of what Windschuttle writes is already conventional wisdom among academic historians. Other points about our past that he wishes to inscribe into the lay understanding deserve inclusion. Similarly, a clutch of the academics whom he traduces do merit the strictures that he inflicts on their ignorance or silliness.
My disappointment arises because Windschuttle’s presentation is likely to stymie the required rethinking. He’s made such a guy of himself that his antagonists will be able to divert attention from matters of concern such as the restoration of class analysis alongside gender and ethnicity.
This review can’t cover all the fields that Windschuttle harrows. Instead, I’ll take three instances to illustrate how his treatment becomes self-defeating.
The first will be his claim that to discriminate against only the Chinese can not be racist.
The second illustrates how he slips from a sound criticism into daffiness.
The third case examines his mishandling of the economic motivations behind White Australia.
So we begin with the discriminations practiced by Colonial institutions against the Chinese. Windschuttle asserts that they cannot be called racist because those prohibitions were aimed only at the Chinese. Instead, their enforcers were guilty of Sinophobia. To be racist, he reasons, the regulations would have to have been against all Asians.
Windschuttle’s definition of what constitutes “racism” follows from his view of what people in the nineteenth century considered to be a race. Here, he relies on Johann Blumenbach, who, in 1795, divided humankind into three races: the Mongolian, the Caucasian and the Ethiopian. Hence, the Chinese were a sub-set of the Mongolian race. According to Windschuttle, racism required its upholder not to discriminate between the peoples lumped together in this 1795 classification. He has redefined racism as detesting all Mongolians equally.
The novelty of this position doesn’t add to its appeal. Indeed, it set me wondering whether he would apply his definition of “racism” to the German Jews under Hitler? If so, the Nazi race laws were not racist because they targeted only Jews, and not all Semites.
Among other objections to this thimble-and-pea trick is the fact that Blumenbach’s tri-partite division was not the only one abroad by the last quarter of the nineteenth-century. Linguists had proposed a version that put the dark skinned Indians and the blond Nordics together as Aryans. From a different direction, as Windschuttle reports 250 pages later, Meiji ideologues were maintaining the uniqueness of the Japanese race as the children of the Sun Goddess. They did not see themselves as Mongolians. European ethnographers were busy carving homo sapiens into five, six and eventually, seventy races. For a time, the Australian Aborigine was a race apart, and the Tasmanians yet another.
Windschuttle’s account of race is more often inadequate than plain wrong. On the key question, he is politically correct, that is to say, scientifically accurate. There are no such divisions in nature as races. Or more precisely, differences in appearance are so slim in terms of genetic makeup as not to constitute meaningful categories. This much Windschuttle acknowledges as one more plank of his own anti-racism. Having recognised the non-existence of race, he accepts that racism is nonetheless possible. Beyond that truth we are all on much shakier ground. As we have seen, Windschuttle’s solution is to grasp after the crudest formulae. For him, racism has to be an objection based on biological characteristics.
Given this definition, it’s no surprise that he nowhere discusses the Australian experience of Anti-Semitism. Had he attempted to do so, he would have been up against prejudices that still weave together religion, ethnicity, physiognomy and economic behaviour. That is all too demanding as an intellectual enterprise for someone of Windschuttle’s cast of mind. He finds more congenial tasks for his intellect in tormenting “academic historians”
His first target is a Queensland Professor, Ray Evans, whom he properly accuses of outrageous hyperbole by connecting the Nazi Kristallnacht of 1938 with an anti-Chinese riot in Brisbane fifty years earlier. Put simply, no Chinese was killed whereas 91 Jews were murdered. Even to mention Kristallnacht in regard to the earlier affray is offensive to the dead Jews and a violation of scholarly decorum.
Having scored a bulls-eye with his practice round, Windschuttle proceeds to wound himself in the footnote by accusing Evans of “exaggerating” when he wrote that two white women were “violently assaulted”. Windschuttle himself admits that they had been “roughly handled”. It’ll take a finer stylist than he to convince a jury that “roughly handled” is substantially different from “violently assaulted”. He goes on to quote a local newspaper that the women were “pushed and even struck all along the block”. Since when did being “pushed” and “struck” repeatedly not constitute a violent assault?
Ill at ease with multi-factorial explanations, Windschuttle heads a sub-section: “Economic Motives versus Racial prejudice”. In place of interaction, he revives a vulgar economic determinism, asking “Did racism cause economic competition or was it the reverse?” That is a crude, not to say odd, formulation of a complicated situation.
Since economic competition was important, it is appropriate to ask who benefited. The answer includes the Free Traders whom Windschuttle praises for their non-racist advocacy of the free movement of cheap Asian labour. The historians’ task is to incorporate the conflict between races into class conflicts among Europeans. That path is closed to Windschuttle because it would lead him back into the company of not just academic historians, but the Marxist kind whom he now affects to despise most.
One of the academics whom he alleges has failed in his duty as a professional is the Monash historian Andrew Markus. Marcus’s offence is to have published an article on the Chinese cabinet-makers who. in 1893, formed a trade union in Melbourne, and sought affiliation with the Trades Hall Council. Their activism is most inconvenient for the Inquisitor-General. First, it runs against his view that the Chinese were culturally unable to participate in “civic patriotism”. Secondly, their trade union offered the European workers a chance to demonstrate that their Sinophobia was economically driven, not racist. Those white workers scabbed on Windschuttle by rejecting the Chinese unionists out of hand.
Despite having outlined the efforts by the Chinese to join their European fellow cabinet-makers, Windschuttle proceeds to tell us that it was “natural” for the latter to refuse the hand of comradeship because “the Chinese isolated themselves in a separate economic sector”. He mocks Marcus for finding it “easy’ to say - eighty years later - that the white unionists should have accepted the offer of solidarity from the Chinese. That option was not open - Windschuttle goes on - because of the Orientals were willing “to accept low pay and work long hours”. What has happened to their trade union and their application to join the Trades Hall Council?
Windschuttle persists with his amnesia about those facts by arguing that the Chinese had “no sympathy or even understanding of union ideals”. Yet the approach from the Chinese cabinet makers had made united action a “real option” for the European furniture union. The Chinese were no longer willing to be oppressed in the old way. In the course of two pages, Windschuttle has managed to forget that his dispute with Marcus arose only because the Chinese had organised themselves into a trade union.
How does Windschuttle keep getting himself into such messes? Part of the answer is that rancour and petulance are more prevalent throughout this volume than is subtlety r nuance. By indulging himself, Windschuttle has spoilt what in more objective hands could have been a welcome corrective to a drift of learned opinion away from economic analysis.