Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sunday Essay – objectivity and balance in the writing of history

Just at the moment, Al Jazeera is running a special series on Australia called Immigration Nation. It is, in fact, the SBS series of that name. This ran three years ago. I reported my reactions in a series of increasingly negative posts:

Seeing it again on Al Jazeera as an Al Jazeera  special, my heart sank. This time my reactions were far more negative, for this is broadcasting to the world. 

Here is an Australian response at the time from the other side of the fence in Australia, John Izzard’s piece in Quadrant, The Deceit of Immigration Nation. Izzard’s piece, too, is special pleading, but it is a corrective.

My second example of distorted history is a piece on ABC by Jennifer King and Lucy Sweeney, Archduke Franz Ferdinand: The man whose assassination is blamed for triggering World War I. Like the fArch Duke Franz Ferdinandirst example, it twists history to mould with current perceptions and biases. David Marr’s rather sneering piece in The Saturday Paper, The centenary of Archduke Ferdinand's assassination, is tarnished with the same brush.

Think that I am unfair here? Well, skim read both pieces, jot down the perceptions that you are left with and then compare that with the wikipedia entry on the Archduke.

I, too, grew up with the perception of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as something of a comic opera state, of Franz Ferdinand as something of a dull buffoon whose death triggered a war. They were the conventional Australian stereotypes of the time, although I had done enough history to know that the causes of the First World War lay in complex power rivalries, that the assassination itself was just a trigger. However, in a history world coloured by Australian and British perceptions, I actually knew very little of the complex history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Put aside an excessive love of shooting. I now think of Franz Ferdinand as a brave if difficult man concerned to preserve the integrity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by recognising ethnic and cultural differences in a pluralist state. I don’t think that I would have liked him, but I can respect his strengths.

And the Austro-Hungarian Empire? I can give you a simple measure here. Compare that Empire with post First World War European history to the present day. If the First World War was the war of the dynasties, we can characterise the subsequent history as the wars of ethnicities. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a pluralist empire. Whatever its weaknesses, its management of ethnic difference, of the tensions that resulted, was far better than the ethnic slaughter that was to follow.

Franz Ferdinand’s constitutional vision may have been unachievable, but I am uncomfortable with sneering at a man who at least had a vision intended to accommodate difference while maintaining the integrity of the state.  

My point in these examples is not to attack the works in question  although I am doing that, but to use them as an entry point for a reflection on the way that this type of reporting affects my own writing when I am writing as a professional historian. Put simply, it twists it, moving it in new directions. Sometimes this is good, but it also risks introducing another set of distortions.

Take the White Australia Policy as an example. My disagreements with some current interpretations led me to research the policy, to try to understand the course of events. It also led me to focus on the experience of some non-European groups in New England and especially the Chinese. In doing so, I came across some of the exceptions in the application of the policy that John Izzard refers too. wing_hing_long_store001a

This is one example of the writing that followed, in this case recording something Janis Wilton had written: Family counts: glimpses of Chinese life in New England in the first half of the twentieth century. This piece from Talk’n Tours will give you a little of the history of the Tingha store displayed in the photo.

Now in writing this way, I am in fact doing something somewhat similar to John Izzard if for different reasons and in a different way. Izzard uses examples in an attempt to temper if not refute some of the views on the White Australia Policy expressed in Immigration Nation. Here he is playing a similar role to that adopted by Australian historian Keith Windschuttle in writing on Aboriginal history.

In focusing on the Chinese experience in New England I am also attacking some of the conventional stereotypes. I obviously have to explain the nineteenth century racial exclusion legislation and the impact that had on the Chinese community. That sets the scene for the adoption of the White Australia policy. In writing on the New England Chinese community in the twentieth century, I have to explain the impact on that community of the immigration restriction acts that came with the White Australia policy. However, and this is an important point, the Chinese experience did not suddenly end with Federation and White Australia. The Chinese were not passive victims, but found ways of working around and through the system.

I have no particular desire to get involved in current controversies on particular aspects of Australian history where those controversies are really driven in part by differing ideological positions. I am more interested in understanding what was. However, I am consciously trying to shift what I perceive to be particularly monochromatic views of Australian history that conceal the real diversity of past Australian life. That is the significance of the Chinese example, for the Chinese were more important in New England history than often realised, especially in the tin field areas, an importance that continued through the twentieth century.

My approach carries its own risk of bias, of course. If I allow myself to be too influenced by current discussions, I risk unbalancing my own work creating another bias. In a way, the weight of evidence provides its own correction. Then, too, I try to make clear the frame from which I am working. Still, a risk remains.

It is also true that the contrary views are actually quite important for the questions they make me ask. The result is, I think, a deeper historical experience for me and, hopefully, the reader. 

6 comments:

Neil said...

The Chinese Experience in New England -- or Braidwood, home of Quong Tart where I have family links -- is one thing. An objective fact that is another thing is that the Chinese population of NSW declined between a peak of 13,048 males in 1891 to 6,903 in 1921. Females were 109 and 379 respectively. What part of that was a successful application of a policy designed to restrict Chinese entry and settlement? What explanations are there for the bizarre gender imbalance? How many positive portrayals of Chinese can be found in art, media or Australian literature in that same period? Quong Tart did well, even if he felt he had to pretend to be a Scotsman. It's just no good, Jim, citing instances of success or odd towns with a sizeable Chinese component comparatively when the overall picture is that Australia was emphatically, as the Bulletin masthead said still well into my lifetime, for The White Man. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/featurearticlesbytitle/4A6A63F3D85F7770CA2569DE00200137?OpenDocument

Anonymous said...

Neil, a quote for you:

Few women were in the first wave of Chinese immigrants to America in the mid-nineteenth century. For example, in 1850, there were only 7 Chinese women versus 4018 Chinese men in San Francisco and in 1855, women constituted only two percent of the total Chinese population in America (Takaki, 1998). These low numbers can be attributed to Chinese cultural values and financial considerations which prevented women from traveling alone. Additionally most of the Chinese men were afraid to bring their wives and raise families in America because of the racial violence they found themselves subject to. Growing Anti-Chinese sentiment in America and harsh working conditions with few labor opportunities, which mainly used a migratory reserve of Chinese laborers, reduced the opportunities for entry of Chinese women.

Or an English timeline:

http://www.zakkeith.com/articles,blogs,forums/chinese-in-britain-history-timeline.htm

But of course Canada was much more open:

They call it the Chinese Immigration Act, but the long name of the Act says it all:

"An Act to restrict and regulate Chinese Immigration into Canada".This act proved to be very effective.


- from here http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/en/timePortals/milestones/1mile.asp

Which is not to in any way excuse my Australian and New Zealand forebears; more just to say maybe the angst could/should be analysed a little more widely than just an early Australian phenomenon?

kvd

ps regarding "God's own country" - New Zealand -

The Liberal era is synonymous with Richard John Seddon, Premier from 1893 until his death in 1906. The Liberals promoted themselves as the champion of the ‘ordinary New Zealander'..... But Seddon's image of 'God's own' excluded ‘Chinese or other Asiatics’. He viewed the Chinese with considerable dislike, as did many in New Zealand's mining communities.

- source available.

Jim Belshaw said...

In a way, Neil, you have made my point for me. This is what I wrote on the New England Chinese:

In focusing on the Chinese experience in New England I am also attacking some of the conventional stereotypes. I obviously have to explain the nineteenth century racial exclusion legislation and the impact that had on the Chinese community. That sets the scene for the adoption of the White Australia policy. In writing on the New England Chinese community in the twentieth century, I have to explain the impact on that community of the immigration restriction acts that came with the White Australia policy. However, and this is an important point, the Chinese experience did not suddenly end with Federation and White Australia. The Chinese were not passive victims, but found ways of working around and through the system."

Just to set a context, on the numbers in the link you cited, the New England Chinese were a very significant proportion of the NSW Chinese population, over 25% in 1881. Numbers declined sharply after that.

The first Chinese came as indentured pastoral labourers, the big numbers came with first the gold and then the tin rushes.

In focusing on the Chinese experience and drilling down, in trying to understand the Chinese perspective, a far more complex picture emerged than the normal portrayal. Obviously the restrictions on Chinese immigration are important, but that is only part of the story.

The majority of Chinese who came did not come as permanent settlers. They came to make money and to return home. In modern terms, we would call them guest workers. The immigration restrictions were important at points in limiting the number of Chinese women, but that was not the only part of the story.

kvd is right to put the Australian experience into a broader context, although that is not my concern in a New England context except to the degree that Chinese emigration to Australia in general and New England in particular forms part of broader patterns. That's actually quite important.

You referred to the Bulletin masthead. That's actually another part of the New England story for the coal miners of the lower Hunter, a key part of the early union movement, were strong supporters of White Australia. The reasons for their support and the impact they had is another thread.

The White Australia policy has been dead for fifty or so years. It lasted about the same time, although you can add the precursors if you like. Why is there so much obsession with it in some quarters? Why, fifty years after its death, is SBS running a program now picked up by Al Jazeera that actually risks reinforcing old stereotypes about this country?

Evan said...

All history is written by contemporary people for contemporary reasons.

Jim Belshaw said...

Apologies for my lecturing tone, Neil. It distracted from the points I was trying to make.

I broadly agree with your point Evan, although I have reservations about the contemporary reasons part.

The present affects topic selection and the questions asked. It also affects interpretation. It is actually very hard to put current values aside in interpreting the past.

The second part of the sentence, contemporary reasons, goes to the heart of what I was trying to discuss.

The example I used was the New England Chinese. If I choose to focus on them in part as a reaction to the debate on white Australia, a corrective test if you like, am I risking the same error as that which I am criticizing?

This is actually an example of broader issues that I wrestle with all the time, the questions of balance and bias.

Wearing my historian's hat, my argument has always been that the professional canons of the discipline in approaching the evidence provides its own corrective. In the end, the evidence determines the story.

Now some historians would argue, I think, following E H Carr ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Is_History%3F) that the very act of selecting evidence involves bias. We can make a distinction here between the evidence we study and the examples we choose to use. In a way, the evidence should dictate the examples, not the historian.

Considering the Chinese case, in looking at the impact on the Chinese and their response to immigration restriction, the evidence as it is. I may be testing some common nostrum, but the evidence has to tell the story. If I selectively choose examples to support a pre-determined case then I am guilty of error.

Evan said...

Hi Jim, 'bias' etc gets tricky.

I do think the procedures in disciplines are very useful. And I agree entirely about being lead by the evidence - so long as we are aware of its limitations eg our ideas of Egypt are based on funeral monuments (very big ones).

I think The Biggest Estate on Earth shows how useful being lead by the evidence can be. I think it is a really wonderful book.

I don't know anything about the Chinese contribution to Australia I'm afraid - so I'll look forward to learning from you. (I don't think that the oppressed finding ways to cope with discrimination lessens the injustice; though it does testify to their resilience and creativity. Which isn't directly about 'bias'; though considerations like it seem to enter into judgements of the evidence).