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The ideology reigniting the History Wars at PM's literary awards

Whether funded by the state or corporate liberality, literary prizes can tend to produce their own public principles far beyond those we might be better to wrestle with in books. Awards do more than award and can often Make A Statement that is much easier to read and understand than, say, J.M. Coetzee himself. The Man Booker, it has been said, works in a cultural field to protect now-outdated parameters of the “literary”. More explicit in its aims, the Bad Sex prize works to make fun of the Man Booker. And last night, the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards upchucked some very particular meanings. Some by accident and at least one, it would seem, by design.

When historian Professor Stuart Macintyre says, as he did to me by telephone this afternoon, he is not at all certain of the value of literary awards, you know it’s not just sour grapes. Himself the recipient of wide-ranging honours, he wonders what the creation of the “celebrity author” can bring the wider community.

“However,” he says, “if you’re going to award such things, you surely must do so with care.” Care, he thinks, was exercised in the award to Joan Beaumont’s WWI account, Broken Nation. Care, according to Mike Carlton in today’s Crikey, supplanted by ideology in the case of a prize to Hal G.P. Colebatch.

Macintyre, an academic who works within the margins of evidence, is far less inclined than Carlton, a journalist whose mood becomes freer with every tweet, to call the award for Australia’s Secret War a numb act of pure ideology. But, he does say, “It is a pity that changes in government see changes in composition of the panel”; a matter reported earlier this year in Daily Review. And he does say of Colebatch’s pieces in Quadrant—also the publisher for his prize-winning book—that the view that unions did their bit to ruin the war effort is not informed “by the methodology expected of historians”.

One does not need to be credentialed to write good history, says Macintyre, but one does need to consult the National Archive when making an argument that precious hours were lost to industrial action. “Based on my previous readings of Colebatch in Quadrant and my own research, the argument is moonshine.”

According to Macintyre, Colebatch’s assertion that Australian man-hours were needlessly haunted by the spectre of communism during World War II can be easily refuted by recourse to research. Industrial accidents were significantly more lethal to Australian wartime efforts than industrial action and there were “more hours lost in the US and the UK on a population basis” than that due to industrial action locally.

But good historiography was not the point last night. Reigniting the history wars seemed to be the statement made.

If you believe much of what Quadrant has to say, and Hal G.P. Colebatch clearly does, then you believe that much of the nation’s intellectual effort has been choked by “smelly little orthodoxies” of thought. Which is to say, and in his 1950s toastmasters-style acceptance speech Colebatch virtually did, that the stink of the Left has doomed history to speculative fiction.

Today, Right-thinking writers thank goodness for the perfume of reason and Tim Blair applauds the happy day that “marks the first time in global history that a major literature prize has gone to a conservative author writing from a conservative point of view”. Either Blair has the same revulsion for historical research that Colebatch seems to or he doesn’t think that Winston Churchill, recipient of a Nobel Prize for literature, is creditably “conservative”.

The latter is perhaps more likely.

Historical scholarship is a matter of debate, revision and argument; little of which has taken place in the research or the reception of Colebatch’s scarcely reviewed work that Macintyre assures me has made no impact on academics—those “Left wing” people obsessed with “facts”. But according to the newest conflagration in the History Wars we saw last night, the discipline of history is just a matter of Right and Left. Macintyre puts it smoothly when he says, “The Right thinks there is this absolute orthodoxy within universities and historical scholarship.” “And in a sense it projects its own expectation of how matters are decided”. Less kindly, the Right thinks everyone is as slapdash and simple in its thinking and method as it tends to be.

It is Macintyre’s view that the discipline of history will survive this latest critique and it is my view as a punter that Colebatch, looking like a florid disciple of Santamaria and raging about the death of Curtin due to Commies, will only convince a tiny portion of the electorate that the “Left”, a synonym for “people who check facts”, dominates all important discourse.

But, in the habit of literary awards, the PM’s party had a point to make and they made it: intellectuals are stupid and, like anyone who deals in revision, facts and debate, simply not to be trusted. Oh, and also that unions are evil. The celebration of this book at a particularly useful instant echoes the celebration of Quadrant’s own Keith Windschuttle, whose The Fabrication of Aboriginal History was perfectly timed—if not necessarily, according to some critics, researched in the most perfect traditions of historical method—to underscore Prime Minister John Howard’s critique of the “black armband view of history”.

The Coalition has made its point. But, two other authors last night made theirs.

Bob Graham handed his $10,000 prize directly over to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Richard Flanagan his $40,000 to The Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

This is touching. It’s also depressing. Our authors are led to do what our government now neglects.

Of course, where our government can’t be critiqued for its efforts, particularly last night, is in the production of ideology.

45 responses to “The ideology reigniting the History Wars at PM's literary awards

  1. See my article on The Drum for a discussion of Hal Colebatch’s book based on research on unions in Townsville in 1945. I argue that his book does not justify the PM’s Prize because it is based on a very partial methodology in both senses. He accepts oral history but does not test it against easily available contemporary sources. If he had bothered to check he’d have come to different conclusions. His book is partial in that he simply repeated anti-union stories and presented an unjustifiably slanted interpretation: that is, one that does not conform to the evidence. Peter Stanley, ‘Honest History’

  2. Is this another example of a phenomenon common across recent internet fuelled intellectual discourse?

    To a casual reader, the result of careful research, made succinct for publication, seems like a collection of reasonable inferences and anecdotes serving a partisan cause.

    Like a lead guitarist, partisans in the culture wars (or in the case of science/health – other nutters) say “I can do that”. They mistake “form” for “substance” and the general public get swept along with the fun or otherwise.

    I am not saying that research is independent of the researchers’ prejudices and preconceptions but we shouldn’t give air time to “sham” research no matter what side you are on or whether you thinks its a good read.

  3. Anecdotal: my late father who served in New Guinea in WW2 and was involved in supply, loathed wharfies for the reasons Colebatch puts forward. He wouldn’t have cared that other factors such as the Coal strikes had a bigger impact on the War, for him it was personal.

    The ‘big’ picture matters little to those actually involved in fighting a war and I value their anecdotes and viewpoint over the opinions of scholarly mostly unread academics.

    1. ‘I value their anecdotes and viewpoint over the opinions of scholarly mostly unread academics.’

      Which is why there is a difference between myth and history and a difference between dishonest history and honest history. Old men forget; individuals project their own experience and assume it was universal. Any decent historian looks at both personal recollections of those who were there plus the documentary record; carriers of family myths should do the same. has much more on this and related issues.

      1. It’s a stretch, though, to project or imply a dishonest motive onto an anecdote told him by his father. How do you know his father was old at the time the information was imparted? Perhaps it was in the decades following the war.

        And many old people function well and have excellent memories.

        All of this should be weighed and analysed, corroborated and so on. If you have dozens or hundreds of old men who all recall traitorous behaviour by elements of the union movement (as well as contemporary documentary accounts), only a partisan would casually dismiss it on the basis of the passage of years.

        Not all unionists behaved badly, but the evidence suggests that elements of the movement made attempts to sabotage the war effort.

    2. Both my late uncles were wharfies at the beginning of WW2 and then joined up to fight (as did many),
      Colebatch would probably claim they were Commie infiltrators.

  4. I was at the awards (despite being one of the sacked ‘leftie’ judges. Apart from Colebatch’s interminable and misjudged speech of acceptance, there was a rumor going around that the judges had put up only single winners to the PM’s office – and they came back with several joint awards – including the History prize. It’s unlikely to be confirmed, but it does help to explain the inexplicable.

  5. I heard from a trusted eye witness the account of Townsville wharfies refusing to load cargo for New Guinea in 1942 or 43. American service men were apparently conscripted to load the ship, and were in turn obstructed by striking wharfies. The Master of the ship then turned the ship’s machine guns on the picketers, and threatened to shoot if they didn’t allow the ship to be loaded.

    I’ll read Colebatch’s book with interest.

    1. So you “heard” from someone else, about something something in “1942 or 1943”. Some Americans “apparently” something something….

      Lots of semi trailer wide gaps there. No, don’t bother researching it to verify. I’ll take it on face value.

      1. So someone I know well tells me of a first hand experience, and I should disregard it because it doesn’t sit well with your world view?

          1. Surely though, it would be people with ‘first hand’ knowledge that would provide the supporting evidence?

            Otherwise its all just made up with second, third and forth hand opinions. Even historians, who weren’t there at the time, would be seeking first hand opinions.

  6. Her’s is the right to write how she likes. I’d call your style ‘concise’, Helen. Refute her argument, if you care to.

  7. So, a summary of the article is an ideologue complaining about an opposing ideologues ideology being victorious. Really, to ignore the fact that the left have used literary prizes to reward and fund like-thinking writers is beyond incredible.

  8. Whenever I read something by hr, I want to drag out my red pen and correct the language. The message may be clear but the medium gets in the way. Why can’t she write clearly, concisely and use language that we can all understand. She seems to believe that obfuscation and obtuseness is what’s reqyuired! Wrong! If you can’t say it simply, you have nothing to say. For example, what is “corporate liberality”? I’m stuffed if I know, it doesn’t make sense to me!

    1. You don’t understand the meaning of “corporate liberality”? Have you heard of Google? Would you prefer “corporate largesse” or “corporate charity”?

      Perhaps you should concentrate on the spelling, grammar and syntax of your own posts before criticising the works of others.

      How does the medium get in the way of the message and what has that to do with Razer’s article? She doesn’t maintain the website. If the message is clear then what’s the problem?

      Spelling and grammar flames are lame. If you can’t understand “big words” then you should stick with something more suited to your level of comprehension and stop wasting bandwidth.

    2. Zeke, my point precisely! If I can’t understand it and have to resort to google, to parse it, and look for synonyms, then hr has failed. She has not communicated effectively!

      1. Read that reply again, Patrick. You’re solidly committed to calling ‘fail’ on someone you failed to understand. If you want a simple explanation, go over to media outlets that specialise in simplicities. If you do go and google some big words you may learn something. Alas, it seems your position is that if you can’t understand it, everyone else has failed. Poor you.

  9. You do realise Blair was being sarcastic don’t you? Or do you really believe the idiot Carlton’s book was called ‘I Like Boats’? How are things on your planet??

  10. Can this bloody government get nothing right? Do they not hire-at vast taxpayer’s expense -thousands of minders, spell checkers, word checkers, minders, et al to check something out before giving it a gong?

  11. Firstly, Churchill shifted from Conservative to Liberal and then back to Conservative during his time in the Commons. A person writing about history might want to read up about his career before commenting on his politics.

    Secondly, union unrest was widely noted at the time including but senior military personnel such as Douglas MacArthur. Pretending that the unions were perfect as the author does is an insult to history and fact and is more appropriate for the Green Left Weekly than Crickey.

    1. I am sure you will agree that the claim that this is the first occasion that a conservative literary work has been awarded a prize can be easily refuted. I could have used many examples (Hayek, Friedman) but Churchill, who was awarded for his body of work much of which is creditably conservative, is more fun.
      I am sure upon further inspection of the text above, you will find that at no point did the suggestion arise that unions were “perfect”. That they can be described as communist when they were federal and disruptive when they were not is the issue.
      The point is Colebatch’s method. Not even his credentials.
      You can decry the “Left” all you wish but you are getting into dangerous territory when you critique historical method.

      1. “…Churchill, who was awarded for his body of work much of which is creditably conservative, is more fun.”

        Good grief.

        Er, I really hate to have to point out something so immediately obvious, but Churchill’s Nobel Prize for literature in ’53 was awarded largely for his series of books called The Second World War, which mostly dealt with when he lead a 1940-45 coalition government consisting of both Tories AND Labour in the same cabinet. It’s not a literary work about conservative thought. Plus, as an earlier post noted, he wasn’t a conservative for large parts of his literary or political career, standing for parliament as both a liberal (he had a life long friendship with David Lloyd George) and as a constitutionalist, and returning to parliament in one government that was a conservative and liberal alliance (Liberal has a very different political meaning in the U.K to Australia, of course, although some struggle to understand this).

        For a lot of his literary career Churchill mostly wrote historical books rather than purely political ideology. But he did write Liberalism and the Social Problem and The People’s Rights, which called for sweeping social agendas of reform and were very radical for the time.
        Oh, by the way, Churchill’s grandson (also a Winston) was born to socialite Pamela Harriman. She was a prominent Democrat in the U.S. and ended up as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to France. Granted, not absolutely relevant, but it does show that having been a Churchill for a while doesn’t seem to stop you from winning accolades from people who aren’t entirely conservative. Maybe because Winston snr doesn’t neatly pigeonhole as a conservative and wasn’t one for significant parts of his life?

        1. The Labour party isn’t conservative? Now I’ve heard everything.

          Even if Churchill sat on the fence between Conservative and Labour then there’s no doubt that he was a conservative (note the lack of a capital “c”). The Labour party isn’t “left” and never was.

          The point that Churchill, a conservative, was awarded a literary prize, refuting Tim Blair’s unresearched statement.

          1. Helen claimed Churchill’s award was for a body of work that was conservative.

            But it wasn’t.
            Helen suggested he was popular in literary circles despite being a conservative.
            But he wasn’t a conservative all of his career, and he had a strong following amongst people who were not conservatives.

            Hence, he is not a good example for her to use.

            As Churchill said- “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”

        2. Was it Sir Samuel Hoare who famously stated “Churchill has written an enormous book all about himself and called it The World Crisis”?

    2. (1) Are you saying that Churchill’s book was not written by a Conservative from a Conservative’s point of view? Because that is what was advanced in Razer’s article.

      (2) “Including but senior military personnel” Wha?? Wasn’t Razer’s point that Colebatch relied on anecdotal evidence, which is extremely unreliable?

      (3) It is a short article. Please help a humble lefty and tell me where Razer said anything close to “unions were perfect”?

      (4) What the hell is Crickey?

      (5) Does something published in the “Green Left Weekly” automatically get dismissed, regardless of validity? And does such a publication exist?

  12. I watched the televising of these awards on SBS & just couldnt believe that Colebatch’s book Australia’s Secret War about unionists causing the death of servicemen in WW2 could be rated as joint winner of a history prize, seeming it is written from an extreme conservative bent with much bias and anecdotal evidence where I have read admirers of it even describe John Curtin as a Communist! Anyway most of the stuff he canvasses in the book about industrial disputes is no secret as wharfies had some of the worst working conditions imaginable and had every right to take action and improve conditions which had caused many serious injuries to them.
    Joan Beaumont should have won the prize in her own right for her excellent history book Broken Nation.

  13. Reds under the beds and the white Australia policy in one of the few remaining colonies still to be de-colonized. What next? Kinghthoods?

  14. The fuss about Colebatch made me dig out my MA thesis from 40 years ago. It was about aspects of the Curtin and Chifley Governments. I must have read every newspaper published between 1941 and 1949 and much more besides. Industrial unrest was certainly an issue during the war – though it was played up by the media – and the waterfront was occasionally disrupted. Much more significant, as I recall, was unrest in the coal industry. Even here, though, coal production reached record levels during the war. I’ll read Colebatch to see what he says

  15. Stuart Macintyre – no sour grapes??? I disagree – he’s a genuine leftie historian who would be foaming at the mouth that one of his mob didn’t win.

    1. You can keep calling all historians who practice revision and research “leftie”. Or, you can just enjoy the best traditions of scholarship before this rampant anti-intellectualism destroys them.

    2. I’ve been acquainted with Stuart Macintyre for over 30 years and I have never once seen him foam at the mouth; it’s not his style at all. Nor is he one to equate his or anyone else’s “mob” in any sort of simplistic way with writing good or bad history. His ideas about this sort of thing are, to my knowledge, just as Helen describes them here. Or did you not actually bother to read the piece?

      1. Let it be said, the Professor is perfectly entitled to foam at the mouth. Although, after a conversation with him today, I can assure you that he doesn’t seem the type.
        But even if he did have rabies and not the respect of practising historians of several political hues as he does, he makes a case for method.
        The point here is that it is asserted by a respected historian, and agreed by other commentators, that the work that won the prize for history is absent of actual history.
        You can go on and on about how Macintyre is a rabid leftie all you want. This does not change the charge that Colebatch made claims he cannot support.
        The distinctions of Right and Left are not the problem here. And mouth-foaming isn’t either; but I do appreciate your comments, Kerryn.
        The problem is that fancy can masquerade as history.
        Even if Colebatch’s claims turn out to be true, they do not respect the most basic premise of the methodological doubt on which western inquiry is founded.
        He didn’t show his work.
        Your maths teacher wouldn’t allow it. The Prime Minister shouldn’t either.

        1. “… and agreed by other commentators, that the work that won the prize for history is absent of actual history.”

          I assume, you have also offered a right of reply or indeed even actively sought out the “opinion” of a “respected historian” who disagrees with Professor Macintyre? Or is this another case of the matter is settled and there will be no further debate? Using one voice only to silence/support one side of the debate is in effect stacking a room full of like minded people who all agree with each other. In effect this was a room with just you and the Professor who both agreed with each other and no other opinion was sought. That my dear is called an echo chamber. Would you consider Gerard Henderson a respect political historian keeping in mind that he too was once an academic? Furthermore, a lawyer, a discipline which by necessity deals in primary material first and foremost over secondary.

          Winston Churchill and the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature was 61 years ago. Perhaps you’re unaware that you are in fact evidencing Tim Blair’s assertions of (so called) progressive bias.


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