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Letters to the Editor - October 2023

by Miranda Johnson, et al.
October 2023, no. 458

Letters to the Editor - October 2023

by Miranda Johnson, et al.
October 2023, no. 458

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The consequences of engaging

Dear Editor,

Bain Attwood’s article ‘A Referendum in Trouble’ and the responses to it from several historians (ABR, August and September 2023) raise important issues about the role of scholars in public debate. The stakes are high given the topic at hand – the upcoming constitutional referendum on the Indigenous Voice – and the fact that this is being argued about in good and bad faith.

I see an overarching issue of moral imperative: should scholars engage in public debates on matters of political significance? What are the consequences of not engaging in them?

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that all the correspondents to the ABR agree on the importance of Attwood’s essay, and none of them has questioned his reasoning or evidence. This is not a repetition of the History Wars of two decades ago, when matters of evidence were a central issue.

What does concern some are matters of timing and allyship. Clare Wright (ABR, August 2023) criticises Attwood for not being an ‘ally’ of Indigenous advocates of the Voice. She further argues that historians should wait until after the October referendum to present historical interpretations that may lead to different opinions. Following these proposals offers scholars the opportunity of maintaining a degree of cleanliness, rather than getting down ‘in the gutter’, as Wright puts it. Given that few historians do engage in public debates on such controversial topics, it would seem to be the preferred stance of many. However, those who make decisions otherwise might also be credited with incurring social costs, a calculus based on a sense that what they have to say might help to clarify a political issue. Their decision about timing can be respected without having to agree with the opinion offered.

This leads into a second issue concerning scholars as contributors to public debates. Peter Cochrane (ABR, September 2023) proposes a Janus-faced stance: the historical profession as a whole is to present a united position publicly, while debating issues ‘internally’. Yet for many academics, particularly those of us regularly teaching in the history classroom, the distinction frequently breaks down as students prod us for our thoughts and we strive to create spaces for them to express theirs. Moreover, we are incentivised by current university funding policies to demonstrate ‘public impact’. Beyond these realities, generations of historians have acted out of a sense of public duty: that is, of putting their expertise, knowledge, and skills to the test in public forums in ways they hope are beneficial for the wider community. This is a valuable tradition that we could seek to reactivate and support. Modelling civil debates in public may have tremendous value, even in a world now highly mediated by algorithms.

The question thus becomes: should a soundly argued and presented historical interpretation that leads to the expression of an opinion be made public at a fraught time, and on what basis should we make such a decision? One basis might be in terms of allegiance to a political side. However, as Wright implies, to do this will likely mean remaining silent if one’s scholarship is not to be criticised for partisanship or falling foul of disciplinary ethics, as in the History Wars. Yet remaining silent is not a value-free decision. There may be costs involved in not presenting information, knowledge, and sound interpretation to a wider public, which deserves the opportunity to assess it. Another option is to discuss these debates with our students, modelling a kind of public square for them in the context of the classroom, and encouraging them to engage in these debates at home or in their communities. A third option is to make one’s argument public to a wider audience, in good faith.

Each of these decisions is beset with difficulties and risks, as well as affording opportunities and benefits. There are good reasons why those who are more precarious – whether in terms of employment, social situation, or emotional and psychological context – are not bound by a moral imperative to make knowledge public. In certain contexts, cultural prohibitions also play a role in decision making about what may be brought to public attention. However, especially for those us with secure academic positions, assessing the risks and making decisions about public speech is a responsibility that comes with relative privilege. Indeed, this is a cornerstone of the principle of academic freedom, which is now challenged in many quarters. I believe it is critical for us – as scholars and citizens – to think through and discuss the implications of our decision making concerning how we contribute to the wider public good.

Miranda Johnson


Intemperate times

Dear Editor,

Joel Deane has written a fascinating and thoughtful essay (‘The Great Australian Intemperance’, September 2023). I particularly liked this comment: ‘Public health, in other words, operates like the Australian governments of the parental era defined by collectivism, yet many Australians – especially casual and gig workers – live in a neoliberal marketplace defined by individualism.’ We like to talk now, in the age of the Covid pandemic, about kindness. This is as it should be, but such talk – without due recognition of what is happening to the working class, with respect to economic conditions and rights – perpetuates the problem.

It is easy to talk about kindness, less so to actually make change to facilitate it in a real way. Governments working for people – ensuring proper wages and working conditions, affordable housing, medical care free at the point of service, and a focus on public education over private – is what we need to help us make our lives better (and kinder), but, increasingly, it is what we do not see. Robert Kennedy Jr is an interesting presidential candidate, though much maligned for his supposed ‘anti-vax’ views. As a lawyer, he has also fought for environmental causes, winning major cases against such environmental criminal corporations as Monsanto. Kennedy is undoubtedly complicated; I don’t support, for example, his views on the Israel–Palestine situation. But he should not be written off, for he has invigorating ideas about American empire.

Thinking about this brief response to Deane’s substantial essay, I am conscious of a previous online comment, from Patrick Hockey. It highlights, I think, a problem of ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ‘masses’ and their ‘ugly goings-on’. I don’t consider myself outside ‘the masses’, just one of that large group of people who are trying to get by in this increasingly hostile and neoliberal economic world.

Sue Bond (online comment)


No débutante

Dear Editor,

I would like to point out with the greatest respect that the appearance of Saioa Hernández in the Sydney concert performance of La Gioconda was not her Australian début, as claimed by Peter Rose in his excellent review (ABR, August 2023). Miss Hernández made her Australian début in Melbourne in 2014, in a concert performance of Norma by Victorian Opera.

Moreover, Pinchas Steinberg was active in Australia in 1978–79 as principal guest conductor of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and also gave a memorable Bruckner Eighth Symphony with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra around that time – way before he was even thought of by Opera Australia.

I would be grateful if this correction was recorded for the sake of Victorian Opera.

Richard Mills, Artistic Director, Victorian Opera

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Comment (1)

  • Of course my comment about the masses was intended as a provocation rather than an analysis of class.
    Posted by Patrick Hockey
    02 October 2023

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