Pseudohistory and anti-intellectualism: Why it sometimes sucks to be a historian

“Extraordinary claims require extraorinary evidence.” (Carl Sagan)

  

Sometimes, being a historian sucks.

This weekend, a book purporting to reveal a secret history of pre-Maori colonisation of New Zealand will will hit the shelves of major bookstores. Titled To the End of the Earth, its authors claim to have discovered evidence that explorers from Greece, Spain and Egypt settled here thousands of years before the arrival of Maori.

Nonsense, you say? I agree wholeheartedly. The problem, however, is that many people gobble up this kind of populist, pseudohistorical nonsense like the latest episode of American Idol. The comments section of a stuff article discussing the book’s release is testament to that fact; riddled with conspiratorial outrage and anti-intellectual high-fives, it’s enough to make the average historian cry.

Why? Because the claim that the arrival of Maori in New Zealand was predated by an earlier civilisation has been thoroughly discredited by dozens of historians, archaeologists, ethnologists and anthropologists, including H. D. Skinner, Ruger Duff, Arthur Thomson, Keith Sincialr, Michael King, James Belich, K. R. Howe, and more recently Paul Moon, Atholl Anderson, Scott Hamilton, Matthew Dentith, and David Riddell. Yet the notion of pre-Maori colonisation persists, like a tick burrowing its way into the nation’s public consciousness.

I’ve decided not to bother engaging with this kind of nonsense for two very good reasons. Firstly, it’s not my area of expertise; there are far more knowledgeable academics who have, and will continue, to pour scorn on it. But more importantly, engaging with it on an academic level provides it with a legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve. Instead, I’d like to contextualise it by outlining the ongoing discourse of anti-Treatyist literature that it falls within. I will also compare this literature to its far more virulent cousin, the Australian History Wars, and demonstrate why it is so important for academics to ignore these kinds of pseudohistorical challenges.

  

THE AUSTRALIAN HISTORY WARS

From the 1980s to the present day, Australian history has become the subject of an intense political and cultural debate. Dubbed the ‘History Wars’, it began with quite humble origins – the attempt to write Aboriginal history back into a national narrative that had wilfully suppressed it. The first person to raise this discrepancy was arguably W. E. H. Stanner during the 1968 Boyer Lecture, who described the state of Australian history as ‘a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape.’ The missing pieces, he argued, constituted a ‘great Australian silence’ on Aboriginal history.

Stanner’s speech transformed the great silence of Aboriginal history into a multivocal debate. Subsequent historians such as Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan tackled the effects of European colonisation on the indigenous population. Reynolds, in particular, broached the controversial question of the Aboriginal death toll caused by colonisation, suggesting that ‘at least 20,000 Aborigines were killed as a direct result of conflict with the settlers.’

Having commenced their historical careers during the height of the post-modernist movement, these writers were well aware of the subjective nature of history. As Reynolds claimed (in a quote which he probably came to regret, due to the attention it later received):

[My work] was not conceived, researched or written in a mood of detached scholarship. It is inescapably political, dealing as it must with issues that have aroused deep passions since 1788 and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future .

And continue they did, in the form of a Labor government keen to come to terms with the negative aspects of Australian history. In the 1990s under Prime Minister Paul Keating, the historical ‘Mabo’ decision was passed and the ‘Bringing them Home’ report commissioned.

The rise of this new strand of scholarship provoked a strong response from the right. In what would prove to be a lasting moniker, historian Geoffrey Blainey called it the ‘Black Armband view of history’ at the 1993 Sir John Latham Memorial Lecture. This view was championed by John Howard and the Liberal Party, and summed up during Howard’s televised delivery of the Sir Robert Menzies lecture in 1996:

I profoundly reject the black armband view of Australian history. I believe the balance sheet of Australian history is a very generous and benign one. I believe that, like any other nation, we have black marks upon our history but amongst the nations of the world we have a remarkably positive history.

The policies that Howard pursued reflected this viewpoint; ignoring the recommendations of the ‘Bringing them Home’ report, he refused to offer a formal apology to the Stolen Generations.

However, it would take a particularly populist personality to officially launch Australia’s ‘History Wars’. In 2002, Keith Windschuttle’s provocatively titled The Fabrication of Aboriginal History claimed that historians such as Reynolds and Ryan had deliberately falsified the historical record in pursuit of their political agenda. Windschuttle expressed a palpable distaste for ‘the culture of the tertiary-educated middle class Left’, and rejected the idea that history was ‘unavoidably political.’ Instead, he asserted that historians should ‘stand above politics … [and] uncover the truth, both the moral truth and the factual truth.’ Never mind the fact that morals, like history, are contestable.

Australian historians responded to Windschuttle through dozens of articles and books. The most significant of these was Whitewash, a collection of essays deconstructing Fabrication and exposing its fundamental flaws. Robert Manne, the editor of the collection, bemoaned the fact that ‘so many prominent Australian conservatives have been so easily misled by so ignorant, so polemical and so pitiless a book.’ The debate continues to this day, with the second volume in Windschuttle’s planned four-part series being released 2010.

  

ANTI-TREATYISM AND PRE-MAORI COLONISATION – NEW ZEALAND’S HISTORY WAR?

Ever since the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975, there has been a simmering body of social opposition to the Treaty and its role in New Zealand government. This opposition can be categorised into two main periods – the ‘Maori Renaissance’ of the 1970s-80s, during which the Treaty of Waitangi began to enter into governmental, judicial, and organisational discourse; and the period after 1985, when the Waitangi Tribunal was empowered to consider claims dating back as far as 1840.

The most prominent anti-Treatyists of the first phase were Hilda Phillips and Geoff MacDonald. Phillips called the new attitude being directed toward the Treaty a ‘grave and downright misinterpretation’, claiming that it was originally meant to provide undisturbed possession of property to all New Zealanders, not just Maori. MacDonald’s ominously titled Shadows Over New Zealand tapped into the discourse of the far-right by suggesting that indigenous rights movements in the Antipodes were the result of Communist manipulation and subversion.

The extension of the Waitangi Tribunal’s mandate resulted in a substantial increase in anti-Treatyist material. Stuart C. Scott asserted in The Travesty of Waitangi that the Treaty had become ‘a racial time bomb for the future’, and that settlements made under it constituted ‘a deliberate move to apartness or apartheid’ . This deliberate move was the work of ‘Maori ‘intellectuals’ posing as moderates’ who had managed to infiltrate the political and educational institutions of New Zealand. Walter Christie similarly argued that ‘the craft of the historian is in sad repair’, singling out the supposed left-wing biases of prominent historians.

The claim of pre-Maori colonisation predates anti-Treatyism. Its origins lie in the widespread belief in the early twentieth century that a distinct Melanesian civilisation named the Moriori had been New Zealand’s first people, only to be later displaced by Maori. Such claims were well-suited to the social darwinism of contemporary Europeans, and provided a convenient excuse for British colonialism and imperialism.

Despite the subsequent rejection of the Moriori hypothesis, the notion of pre-Maori colonisation has persisted, mutating into multiple different forms. Barry Brailsford’s Songs of Waitaha raised eyebrows in 1995 when it claimed that no less than three distinct peoples, two of which were light in complexion, had settled in New Zealand thousands of years before Maori. Brailsford’s claim rested solely on the oral traditions of the Waitaha people, and did not provide any historical, archaeological or anthropological evidence. His work was universally disputed by academics.

The latest mutation of the pre-Maori colonisation claim demonstrates how it has become a nasty corollary of anti-Treatyist literature. Martin Doutre’s Ancient Celtic New Zealand strings together a mismatched series of spurious archaeological evidence, pareidolic misinterpretations of natural rock formations, and a complete misunderstanding of the effects of time on skeletal remains. He derides academics as ‘social historians with P.C. agendas’, and his website contains several ‘social conscience articles‘ critical of the Treaty of Waitangi, along with a link to the One New Zealand Foundation where he works alongside right-wing luminaries such as Ross Baker and Kerry Bolton.

Seen in this light, To the End of the Earth is merely the latest in a long series of attempts to undermine legitimate Maori grievances by subverting their claim to be tangata whenua and denying the relevance of the Treaty of Waitangi. You can be sure it will apply all of the stock-standard methods of its predecessors – spurious and misinterpreted evidence, the belief in a vast conspiracy of left-wing ‘P.C.’ academics (as if we have ever been so organised!), and the select use of a small number of documents and quotes to draw sweeping generalisations and extraordinary conclusions.

There’s a word for this kind of thing. It’s called a conspiracy theory.

  

CONCLUSION

One of the main reasons that New Zealand has never experienced a ‘History War’ is because the hollow accounts of the anti-Treatyists have been largely ignored by academics. Oh, sure, their claims have been repeatedly disproved, but this has been done without granting them the kind of academic legitimacy that Australian historians inevitably bestowed upon Keith Windschuttle. There are other reasons, of course – for example, the National Party have not championed the claims of the right-wing in the way that the Australian Liberal Party did (although Don Brash came close in his 2004 Orewa speech). But this too comes down to publicity – if New Zealand politicians seem happy to leave anti-Treatyists on the fringe that they currently occupy, why should academics do any different?

Because that’s ultimately what the anti-Treatyist and pre-Maori colonist discourse is – a fringe theory, espoused by a small minority on the right, with about as much credibility as the 9/11 truther movement. Will an awareness of this fact change things? Probably not. Books like To the End of the Earth will always find a place on the shelves of Whitcoulls beside the dubious tomes of Gavin Menzies, because their populist language and extravagant claims attract a widespread audience in the way that the dry, evidence-based works of academics do not. It sucks, but them’s the breaks.

It also sucks that the public don’t respect the opinions of professional historians in the way they do other experts. In response to stuff’s brief consultation with AUT Professor Paul Moon regarding the new book, one commenter said:

Paul Moon appears to believe that only so called academics can do research. That is rubbish, any one can do research. I hope he was misquoted otherwise he comes accross as an elitist with a patronising comment.

The commenter is technically right – anyone can do research – but he seems to have missed the underlying point. Historians are trained to do historical research. It’s their craft, and they spend years perfecting it. I somehow doubt that the same commenter would be quite so willing to ignore the opinion of a professional statistician, or a physicist.

Still, it’s not all doom-and-gloom. Authors like James Belich continue to show us how popular and academic histories need not be mutually exclusive, and more and more historians are becoming aware of the power of the internet in broadcasting their reasoned views to a wider audience. Ultimately, however, the answer lies in a more nuanced teaching of history at a primary and secondary level. Students need to be taught that history is less a set of facts and dates than it is an ongoing debate, where different interpretations of the past are weighed against the evidence. Part of the reason why the Australian History Wars generated so much controversy was because Australians simply weren’t aware of the fact that history is contestable. If we teach people this from the outset, they might be better able to separate the more well-rounded interpretations from the conspiracy theories.

  

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