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:
- 10 January 2011 Personal Reflections: Issues with Immigration Nation
- 17 January 2011 Personal Reflections: Musing on Immigration Nation part two
- 24 January 2011 Personal Reflections: Sunday Essay - Immigration Nation fails the test
- 27 January 2011 Personal Reflections: immigration, words and concepts
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 first 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.
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.