Subject: CT: History's Lens Reground
Date: Sat, 20 Mar 1999 09:20:39 -0500
From: "John M. Miller" <>

The Canberra Times March 15, 1999, Monday Edition

History's Lens Reground; Who Knows Who Is Right Or Wrong In The Slanging About; Australia's Role In East Timor, Lincoln Wright Says.; It's All A Matter Of The Protagonist's Historical Perspective.

BEFORE the French philosopher Michel Foucault and his Palestinian-American disciple Edward Said began to influence historical writing, a Cambridge historian of the Soviet experiment, Edward H. Carr, propounded a philosophy of history that dazzled the postwar Anglo-Saxon world.

In his little classic What is History? Carr made an elegant and logical attempt to show that historians and history reflect the values and prejudices of their time and that the so-called objective facts of history are interpreted differently, depending on the historian's individual agenda and milieu, or what some would call the bee in his bonnet.

Carr said memorably, When you read a work of history, always look out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog. The debate over Australia's role in Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975 and the current distemper in the Labor Party about the role of the Whitlam Government and later Labor governments (under the influence of Gareth Evans) is a beautiful example of what Carr was on about.

The current reinterpretation of East Timor is not a change in the factual base of our knowledge about what happened in 1975, but a zeitgeist shift, a big rupture in the social conditions that had buttressed the traditional or Whig view of Timor and made everyone overlook the alternative view, even if they believed it.

There was no single way of understanding a historical period, Carr seemed to be saying, and the best one could do was to be as sensitive as possible to the effect of the present on one's view of the past. Truth existed, but it was a long road, and it did not run straight from fact to truth. Carr mocked Victorian historians like Macaulay who had made the mistake of judging the past subconsciously through the lens of British governing-class values. Macaulay's happy and beautifully written Whig view of history extolled the wonders of democracy for the common folk, but ignored the class exploitation of their rulers and their snobbery.

Later historians, notably the Marxist revisionists, would interpret the facts of industrial civilisation and British democracy differently and come to different conclusions. Just who was right was a difficult question. Apart from the given facts, the outcome of the debate depended for Carr on such things as the class values of the historian and the social and political preoccupations of the time.

Just as it was no accident that after World War I the British historian Arnold Toynbee began writing history as a story of civilisations in decline, so it was no accident that Australia's views on East Timor are changing after the end of Suharto's regime and the Cold War.

If Whitlam's and Evans's views represent the Whig view of Timor, Laurie Brereton and his advisers are the revisionists. They are out to reinterpret facts that once seemed solidly in place for Australia's own governing elite and reached their Hegelian pinnacle in the security treaty of December 1995. What is the Whig view of East Timor? It is that a series of sensible political decisions made initially by Garfield Barwick in the early 1960s when Menzies was prime minister, put into effect by the Whitlam Government in the 1970s, and validated by Fraser, Hawke, Keating and for a while Howard, established the best possible policy for Australia.

JUST as the suffering of the industrial working class was seen as necessary and progressive if economic growth were to occur, so the murders and tortures in East Timor were seen in Australia's elite circles as part of the equation of running a nation-state properly and not getting into unwinnable conflicts. The Whig view was that East Timor belonged naturally to the Indonesian archipelago, was trouble in the making if it became independent and, besides, no-one really wanted a big brawl with the Indonesians over a poor, uninspiring half-island that could attract the evil Soviets or China if it went its own way. For about 25 years, the Whig view of Timor was that it was best for Australia if we just let the take-over slip incrementally from historical memory. Best of all was that the United States agreed: US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did not give a damn.

The revelatory documents on 1975 have been available for some time, not just the letters to Suharto and memoranda of meetings between him and Whitlam, but books by diplomats and politicians involved in the events of mid-1975 as well as (in one form or another) the book banned in 1980 by the High Court, Documents on Australian Defence and Foreign Policy 1968-1975, the one containing Richard Woolcott's famous cable asking Gough not to write again to Suharto. An issue that was once seen by Australia's official class including the media as somehow settled has been reopened again, not by a great discovery of archives or a St Augustine-like conversion in the morals of the governing class, but by a bizarre and unpredictable series of events.

What was once a clear case of acceptable realpolitik that served Australia's interests is no longer that, the Cold War having ended, Suharto having lost power and that steely conquistador Jose Ramos Horta having hammered the international community over the issue.

Individuals who prospered in the old zeitgeist, like Whitlam and Evans, are floundering now, largely because it is not a completely rational debate; rather a process of realignment, with its own dynamics. Like a wicked form of punishment, the distinguished pair are helpless to use their greatest gifts of reason and rhetoric against a view that is in tune with the times. How could anyone believe Gareth Evans really wanted self-determination after seeing the photo of him clinking glasses with Ali Alatas? Or Whitlam after reading the memorandum of his September 1974 meeting with Suharto, when he expressed his individual belief that Portuguese Timor was a natural part of Indonesia? The problem with Carr's view is that it cuts both ways. Richard Woolcott now supports East Timorese independence, but he is still a realist, explaining his change of mind in terms of the changed environment. Brereton has a variety of motives, not just that backing independence is the right thing to do or that it is a very effective way to attack the Government. It was clear to Brereton back in 1996 that things were changing. Why not change with the times and be on the winning side of history? Carr's work was a taste of the radical subjectivism to come (under French influence at first, but later North American) in the form of history as discourse or historical truth as construction, almost fiction if you like, written by individuals with unavoidable bias, and without final objective standards because those were, well, basically non- existent.

If there were a special school at Dili which examined how the West distorted the truth about East Timor, it would probably be teaching the ideas of Columbia University's Edward Said, a Palestinian activist and world-renowned literary critic who has railed against Israel and America's distorted views of Islam. SAID was the one who really absorbed the logic in Foucault's works and argued that the group of scholars who created the West's worldview of Asia and the Middle East over the centuries had invented a way of looking at the Orient which appeared to Westerners as real or rational, but which was ultimately neither, and which served Western interests.

This was what Said called Orientalism and, in the jargon, it was a discourse, a well-rounded blend of fact and fiction that really looked like the truth, but which in many ways was ideology dressed up with academic prestige. Orientalism at its worst was a nasty construction that could often be reduced to propositions that said things like Arabs were lazy, Asians effeminate and untrustworthy.

The Whig view of East Timor is a form of orientalism.

Carr's first rule for readers of history was: before you study the history, study the historian.

Gough and Gareth should recall Carr's second rule in their current bewilderment: study the historian's social and political environment. It has changed.

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