PROFILE: by Geoffrey PartingtonNews Weekly
Left-wing veteran of Australia's 'history wars'
, May 25, 2013
Marilyn Lake’s positions and awards
Tasmanian-born Professor Marilyn Lake holds a personal chair in the school of history at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, where she was appointed founding director of women’s studies in 1988. She has also held a number of visiting professorial fellowships, including at Stockholm University, the University of Sydney, the University of Western Australia and the Australian National University.
Professor Lake was awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) professorial research fellowship in 2004 and an Australian Prime Minister’s Centre Research Fellowship in 2007. She has been awarded a second ARC professorial research fellowship that began in 2011 to investigate the international history of Australian democracy.
She has published 13 books and numerous articles and book chapters in Australian and international publications. Recent books include What’s Wrong with Anzac?, written with Henry Reynolds, Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi, and Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality, co-authored with Henry Reynolds. It was awarded the Queensland Premier’s Prize, the Ernest Scott Prize and the Prime Minister’s Prize for Non-Fiction.
Marilyn Lake has named as her “theoretical framework” the late French postmodernist Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, but she has been influenced by many feminist intellectuals as well. Lake thinks that “historians are implicated in contemporary politics, particularly Australian historians, whether they like it or not”.
She practises what she preaches. Her principal themes include the evils of war, the oppression of women and the sufferings of Australia’s indigenous peoples.
Lake holds that Aboriginal people were “warriors, patriots, resistance fighters and indispensable guides to the European explorers and settlers”. In addition, they were “efficient resource managers in an inhospitable continent and as proponents of religious beliefs which also worked to maintain the country”. She holds that Aboriginal women enjoyed high status in traditional society: they were “the chief breadwinners and significant custodians of their country”. They were “not oppressed by a body of man-made ‘laws’ that issued forth from legislatures embodied — as in British and Australian parliaments — in male form”. Aboriginal women used to possess a “strong subjective sense of equality”.
According to Lake, in contrast to the felicities of life enjoyed by Aboriginal women in their traditional groups, all women, Aborigine and colonist, suffered under colonisation. Unmarried male “wandering members of the British race” were dangerous predators, while women’s situation was “one of isolation, vulnerability and defencelessness”.
Lake depicts typical married women’s lives in the Outback as made miserable by their husbands’ drinking, gambling and predatory sexuality. In an attitude some might consider slightly racist, Lake seems, like the white wives, especially affronted by husbands’ sexual use of Aboriginal women under the marital roof. She holds that it was “the spectacle of white men’s systematic sexual abuse of Aboriginal women and of ‘unprotected’ white women and girls… that confirmed twentieth century Australian feminists in their view of sexuality as inherently degrading for women”. As a result, she believes, women were even more fervent advocates of a “White Australia” than the men.
Yet Lake also asserts that, “in the context of a British colonial settlement, white women assumed a special authority as the agents of civilisation and custodians of the race”. This would have been difficult had women been as helpless as she had previously argued.
Lake claims, sensibly enough, that drinking and sexual promiscuity were regarded as especially heinous offences in and by colonial women. She adds: “This tyrannical double standard was enshrined in law.” Since this was so mainly because of pressure by women, that fact undermines much of Lake’s lamentations about women’s helplessness.
She herself is adept as using double standards. She depicts the gender balance in both Britain and Australia as unfairly disadvantageous to women. In Britain many surplus women were, she maintains, forced into spinsterhood or extra-marital immorality. In Australia they were weak because they were outnumbered.
Lake usually tells only one side of a story, but may justify her partiality as a necessary balance to even worse misrepresentations on the other side in the past. She reminds us that “Aboriginal workers were not given adult wages, often no wages at all”, but ignores the “rations” given to the extended families of Aborigines working on Outback stations.
Crude sexism enters Lake’s discourse when she refers to men’s “casual sex with animals, other men, indigenous and other ‘unprotected’ women and girls, as well as the dissolute practices of gambling and drinking”. What evidence has she about the intimate habits in the Outback of men compared with women? How do we evaluate their comparative immorality, especially once differences in opportunity are taken into consideration? We may hope that not too many a Pasiphaë assaulted the virtue of the native fauna of Australia, but properly funded research may reveal surprises.
Lake has gone beyond most of the Australian feminist Left in her hatred and scorn for the colonial male. She has explicitly contrasted the depictions given by Russel Ward and the “Old Left” with those of “New Left” in which she and historian Henry Reynolds became so prominent. She wrote that for Russel Ward the bushman was to be admired as “the practical man, rough and ready, independent and anti-authoritarian, a man given to few words, but resourceful and supportive of his mates”. However, for “historians of Aboriginal dispossession, such as Henry Reynolds”, it was the bushman who embodied “the criminality, brutality and violence that characterised the settlement of Australia”. In contrast, rejoiced Lake, Reynolds had revealed Aborigines to be political subjects about whom the history of Australia should be centred.
Lake took her messages into classrooms and lecture theatres. She stated:
“I teach general courses in Australian gender relations, which I have done for about ten years, and I always have quite a bit on the policy of taking the children away. When I first started teaching that, the general community were not aware of this history. The students were shocked about what they were learning about their country’s past…. I think we have to proceed to write and teach about racism.”
The campaigns during the recent and ongoing “history wars” by Lake and her colleagues have surely succeeded beyond their wildest hopes, in her words, in inculcating “heightened consciousness about the place of massacres on the frontier, dispossession of Aboriginal people”. In September 2011, Lake expressed concern that “the numbers of students enrolling in humanities subjects, in particular humanities subjects, is declining.”
She added: “There has been particularly talk of a crisis in enrolments in Australian history and in Australian studies.... It seems to be the case that students perceive Australian history to be boring or that they assume that they know it already, that they’ve done it at school and that they don’t need to do it again.” Her interviewer reminded her that “a lot of academics complain that students arrive at university with no rudimentary knowledge of Australian history”.
Lake rejected any suggestion that “black armband” interpretations of Australian history might alienate many students. She attributed the unpopularity of Australian history to John Howard and his supporters. Evidently, they “racialised asylum-seekers and those who come in boats”; and this meant that “they’re not seen to be people like us but people of another race”.
Reflecting on her own career, Lake considers that she began as a fiery polemicist, but with the passage of years, her work became underpinned by humanist empathy. As a result she has become more sympathetic to the “maternal feminists” whose restricted views, as she saw them, held sway in women’s movements then. Some of her admirers fear this may indicate backsliding in her denunciations of recognition of conservatism, paternalism, heterosexism and racism; but there seems no danger that such a process is likely.
Lake is appalled by “the obscenity of war”, which must often make her work as a historian very painful. Has she read the verse of Hilaire Belloc?
Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight,
But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.
Or Walter Scott in Rob Roy?
The good old rule… the simple plan
That they should take who have the power,
And they should keep who can.
Lake fears that Australian history is close to being taught “as if it’s all one long war”. She says: “So it doesn’t quite, it doesn’t matter whether, you know, Australians were fighting World War I or World War II or Korea or Vietnam or Iraq, they displayed the same values. Courage, mateship…. They display the spirit of Anzac… So the last 15 years or so school children have been inundated with lessons about military history and they’ve been going on the pilgrimages to Gallipoli and stuff. Anna Clark has said more money has been spent on educating children in military history than any other field of history in Australia.” (Anna Clark is a granddaughter of the late left-wing historian Manning Clark).
I am assuming that where there is no suggestion of disagreement that Professors Lake and Reynolds concurred in their arguments. They began by asserting that a “relentless militarisation of our history” has recently taken place and that money lavished on military history and commemorations by the Howard government has fostered an ultra-patriotic, rather militaristic viewpoint in children. Evidently, federal money was intentionally allocated to Anzac themes in particular “to divert attention from the history of Aboriginal dispossession and frontier massacres by opening up a new front”. Yet the Howard government generously financed expositions of Aboriginal history as well, most of them highly critical of colonialism and Empire.
The professors allege that the educational militarists were led by John Howard, but that shameful support was provided by gutless Labor politicians as well, including Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd, not to mention the mass media, publishers and authors, schools across the nation, the RSL, and parts of the public service.
Howard and company are not entirely to blame, however, since the rot set in long ago. Sending Australian troops to the Sudan and South Africa is seen by Henry Reynolds as disgraceful cultural cringing. No suggestion is offered that some Australians felt an interest in these conflicts independently of their loyalty to Britain, where many of the volunteers had been born. No discussion is offered of fears of German power in New Guinea, much closer than the Japanese.
Reynolds and Lake seem sceptical about any danger of an invasion of Australia, apart, that is, from the British invasion of 1788 and its so far permanent effects. Their chatter on other occasions about the Holocaust and genocide does not seem to have led to a realistic concern about the possible fate of Australians under German or Japanese rule.
Lake believes that “the Anzac lessons were a national curriculum”. She writes: “Anzac lessons and web materials and stuff were sent out from Canberra. That was, in effect, a national curriculum.” Books about ANZAC are, according to Lake, “heavily subsidised and supported and they do focus on military battles”. Howard-style history, Lake claimed, neglected “the impact of war on the home front, the divisions on the home front, the fight against conscription, divisions between men and women”. Her argument seems self-contradictory. On the one hand, she alleges that numbers in history courses are falling because wars dominate them, but that almost the only history courses that have attracted higher numbers are in military history.
Lake and Reynolds believe: “With few now in our society who can bear direct witness to the obscenity of war, our schoolchildren are charged with the onerous responsibility of keeping the legend alive, wrapped in the Australian flag.” The “Anzac myth” especially distresses them.
They say: “It taunts and troubles us. It looms larger than ever in Australian historical memory — with the generous help of the Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The myth will remain our creation story until the nation is reborn, until we have the courage to detach ourselves from the mother country, declare our independence, inaugurate a republic, and draw up a constitution that recognises the first wars of dispossession fought against indigenous peoples. Thus we can truly make history in Australia.”
The “Anzac Tradition” is, she urges, “the vehicle by which the ideas of the Edwardian militarists are preserved and passed on to a new generation”, which then may emulate the “white supremacists… representatives of the White Australia Policy, which promoted racial purity.” Lake condemned Sydney’s 2005 “Cronulla mob” for attacking Lebanese youths whom they accused of assaulting slightly dressed Australian women on beaches. She alleged that assaulting women is part of the White Australian male tradition and implied that accusations against the Lebanese were racist inventions.
Lake does not oppose war as such; she wishes there had been a war of independence against the British yoke. She says: “Unlike the American colonies — whose example of independence was implanted in historical memory and always before the constitution-makers of the 1890s — the Australian federal fathers failed to achieve the heroic goal of manly independence.”
Lake has high hopes of the new history curriculum “that is being designed and thought about for implementation in all Australian schools. And from what I’ve seen of it, it looks very progressive and very exciting to me: for example, there’s a suggestion that we should be more conscious of locating Australian history in its Asian context.… Chinese colonists in Australia in the 1880s were amongst the first in the world to talk about notions of common human rights.”
Given that direction of the national curriculum for history is in the safe hands of progressive scholars such as Professor Stuart Macintyre of Melbourne University, it should prove generally satisfactory to Professor Lake. However, whilst alienating many other students, the new history curriculum is unlikely to attract many students of Chinese origin, even, or especially, if their land of origin is celebrated as the home of human rights, liberty, equality and fraternity.
The ALP difficulty
Unlike some less subtle progressive thinkers, Lake appreciates that constant denunciations of the evils committed by White Australians may need to be tempered if students are to provide continued employment for history teachers and professors. She has tackled, for example, the relationship between “John Curtin’s international socialism and his commitment to White Australia”. Lake accepts that being a “white man” was “central to Curtin’s identity” and that he “saw the White Australia Policy as necessary to uphold the white worker’s standard of living” on which his status as a man depended. She agrees that the ALP “had written the preservation of racial purity into its platform”. She acknowledges that Curtin opposed the entry of Italian migrants in the 1920s and condemned the Bruce anti-socialist government for allowing migrants from southern Europe “to dilute our racial homogeneity”.
Yet Lake insists that Curtin was not “a racist”, because he “was an advocate of self-determination for colonised peoples and he was at pains to condemn racial prejudice”. He thought the Chinese and Japanese were “different”, but wanted them treated with respect. Lake succeeds in showing that an “international socialist” could support the White Australia Policy, but in the process also inadvertently demonstrates that thousands of other people who supported the policy were not racists either.
Lake would like the Gillard government to ensure that students know that Australia “was once a quite racist, xenophobic country under the policy of the White Australia Policy”. It is unlikely that Lake’s wish will be fulfilled: the current Gillard government is not likely to last long; the teaching lacks conviction; and most students will resist brain-washing. Yet, if they ever read Curtin’s speech when war with Japan began in 1941, they may want to know what were the “imperishable traditions” of which Professor Lake has left them largely ignorant.
As Curtin said at the time: “We here, in this spacious land where, for more than 150 years, peace and security have prevailed, are now called upon to meet the external aggressor…. We Australians have imperishable traditions. We shall maintain them. We shall vindicate them.”
Although one has no reason to suppose that Lake would relish a woman’s life in traditional Aboriginal societies, she frequently praises its supposed advantages for women as compared with their subservience in the sexist post-colonial West. She is a fervent opponent of wars, but almost exclusively of those fought by Western societies, including by her own country.
Like many other feminists, Professor Lake purports to be a disadvantaged battler and outsider, even though feminists hold a large number of top academic posts in history, social sciences and English in our universities. She is a typical Australian public intellectual of our time. Professor Manning Clark in his dotage praised the historians who had ensured that “the descendants of the British have discovered the evil in their past”, so that “the horrors are being faced”. As a result, Clark said accurately, “In all the history departments of the universities and colleges of advanced education, teachers and students are burrowing away in libraries to find more examples of white barbarism and cruelty against the Aborigines.” He did not seem to comprehend that the “new tree green”, whose sprouting he had once celebrated, had been chopped down and set on fire in the process.
Given the constant repetition of Lake and her kind of the “evil in their past” and the subsequent “horrors”, our country’s history is not merely “warts and all” but hardly anything but warts.
No wonder the students stay away.
Dr Geoffrey Partington was born in Lancashire and currently lives in Melbourne. He has academic degrees in history, sociology and education, and has recently completed a book, Making Sense of History (Sydney: Xlibris, 2013), which will soon be available for sale. The above article was reproduced in abridged form in the printed edition of News Weekly. The online version here is the full-length version.