I shouldn’t buy books, should I? After all, I have devoted much effort this year to ridding myself of so many, but the above title just reached out to me. Skimming it so far I am glad I bought it.
Geraldine Doogue: Why do Australians seem to find such difficulty discussing history – that it becomes so angry so fast?
Bain Attwood: Because I think history is very much bound up with the sense of who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going to. History is increasingly bound up with human being’s sense of who they are, their identity. And so human beings have a lot invested in history, they have a lot invested in what they believe is a true story and I think in these times of very rapid change a lot of people think that the past, or the story about the past is the most stable thing that they can hold onto.
And so what we have is a situation where there’s been a democratisation of history, where we have whole series of competing historical truths and many people find this very difficult to come to terms with, particularly settler peoples. We’re used to saying our story is true, you accept that.
Since the age of de-colonisation, colonised peoples have not accepted that, and they say, we have our story too. How do you determine what is historical truth, how do you determine who is right? How do you determine whose identity is going to prevail. These are very very difficult questions for any nation state to address. We shouldn’t say that this is easy, we shouldn’t assume that where people’s histories are challenged that that is an easy process for them, and the evidence in Australia, as it is in many other places is that this can be very painful, and that should be recognised, we shouldn’t just brush that aside…
Travis Cutler, Australian National University, in the API Review of Books finds Telling the Truth “a perceptive — if sometimes tedious — book”, but:
One thing his book manages to do is wrestle back some of the territory (and respect) that history and historians have lost over the last few years. What I find troubling is the way he goes about it. Suggesting that history is a dangerous tool in the hands of foolish politicians and ambitious intellectuals is one thing; insisting that it should be left to professionals is wholly another.
The uneasy drawing of disciplinary boundaries in the first section of Attwood’s narrative is met with a tight, insightful sensibility in the second (the book is constructed in three parts: present, past, future). Here, the acridity of his prose makes for a surprisingly powerful tool. Windschuttle is the target and Attwood takes his work apart with a clarity and persuasiveness that the academy has lacked until now. To take just one example: ‘he [Windschuttle] misrepresents the work of his “orthodox historians”, beats their arguments up and then turns around and advances contentions they have already made. In doing so, he once more obfuscates the critical matters at stake’. Suddenly Attwood’s derisive caption is translated with potent force: good history is told by good practitioners; professional history can be powerful; sell-out audiences are valuable indeed and it is academic historians who have a deep responsibility to them.
To judge from what I read in the weekend papers, Ann Curthoys and John Docker, Is History Fiction? (UNSW October 2005) could be interesting too. But I think I will wait for Surry Hills Library to get that one.