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Goodies and baddies

February 2007, no. 288

Australian Historical Studies: Volume 37, Number 127 edited by Joy Damousi

MUP, $65 (two issues p.a) pb, 273 pp,

Australian Historical Studies: Volume 37, Number 128 edited by Shurlee Swain and Stuart Macintyre

MUP, $65 pb, 172 pp

Goodies and baddies

February 2007, no. 288

‘Nothing bad has ever happened in the last 218 years of European settlement – and if anything ever did, it has been inflated out of all proportion by self-serving lefty academics.’ The perpetually angry right-wing commentators that dominate the so-called ‘history wars’ would never write anything so crass, but that is the message which appears to permeate the ‘three cheers’ school of Australian history supported by the present neo-liberal establishment. In contrast, recent contributors to Australian Historical Studies (AHS) provide a more nuanced version of Australian history that transcends pointless debates about the ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ of the past. In general, the essayists seek to understand past realities rather than to pass judgment on historical actors and their eras. Race is one of the strongest themes in both issues of AHS. David Walker’s ‘Strange Reading’ (No. 128) is a well-written assessment of Keith Windschuttle’s The White Australia Policy (2004). Walker shows that by ignoring key evidence and through selected use of edited historical quotations, Windschuttle has constructed a bogus Australian past in which racist attitudes towards Asia represented a minimal part of the national story. Gillian Cowlishaw (No. 127) also tackles the history wars and the construction of national myths. Cowlishaw stresses the importance of creating Aboriginal history that reflects the personalities and values of the participants: ‘Indigenous Australians remain shadows in the scholar’s margins, passive recipients of “our” actions in the past and “our” regrets in the present.’ This problem can be hard to rectify, because the public record has a tendency to focus on European attempts to ‘manage’ the indigenous ‘issue’; the perceptions of indigenous people regarding cultural change and continuities are not always sufficiently documented, even in recent times.

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