The University of Colorado’s dismissal of Ward Churchill for academic fraud was not only a welcome decision in support of scholarly standards, it will also go some way towards discrediting one of the most depressing tendencies of our era, the politicisation of history.
In Australia, Churchill has long been frequently cited by historians of Aboriginal affairs. In their introduction to a special “genocide” edition of the academic journal Aboriginal History in 2001, the editors supported Churchill’s contentions that colonialism in America and the Pacific was worse than the Holocaust and that the British were the most murderous of Europe’s imperial powers.
Thirty-five years ago, when academic fashions were quite different than today, one of Churchill’s precursors in the history of American Indian affairs, Francis Prucha, put the traditional view of how scholars in the field should practice their trade:
History is a legitimate scholarly discipline whose purpose is to reconstruct the past as accurately as the intelligence of the historian and the fullness of the historical sources permit. Its purpose is to supply enlightenment, understanding, and perspective and to provide sound information on which balanced judgements can be based. Its purpose is not to serve the special interests of any group or doctrine, nor to furnish ammunition for polemics or propaganda… We must seek the truth in the story we are telling, and in the history of Indian-white relations especially we must be alert to the pitfall of having too much sympathy either for our own preconceived ideas or for one side or the other of the controversy. To be a good judge, we must not care what the truth is we are seeking. We must be concerned only with finding it.
Unfortunately, this was a perspective fated soon to be overthrown not only in indigenous affairs but in many others. This was as true here in Australia as in the United States. Shortly after Prucha wrote the above words in 1972, the man destined to become Australia’s most influential historian of Aboriginal affairs, Henry Reynolds, endorsed a new approach to history that he and his cohorts of the 1960s generation were propagating around the world:
Discussion of Aboriginal resistance brings home to us the close relationship between history and the political and moral issues involved in the cause of Aboriginal advancement and the struggle against racism in Australian society. The work of historians has been used in the past and will be used again by black and white, conservative and radical. The study cannot be sealed off from the community. Demands are made that history should not only be relevant but politically utilitarian, that it should aim to right old injustices, to discriminate in favour of the oppressed, to actively rally to the cause of liberation.
Reynolds’s first major work, The Other Side of the Frontier (1981), aimed frankly at this last objective:
the book 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.
It was this same attitude to the politicisation of history that most troubled the University of Colorado’s committee of inquiry. In its review of the overall pattern of Churchill’s offences, it accused him of behaving as though the difference between scholarship and political polemic did not matter. It found “repeated instances of his practice of fabricating details or ostensible written evidence to buttress his broader ideological arguments”. It said Churchill was well aware that the traditional conventions of scholarly investigation were central to the accountability of the historian.
Yet when he went before the committee’s hearings to justify the worst of his misconduct, Churchill described his scholarly practice in quite different terms:
I’ve got this general understanding. You say, but can that general understanding be confirmed? Well, I’m looking to confirm it. I’m also looking for information, and I told you this at the outset, I’m looking to prove it’s true.
The committee took a dim view of such a procedure. In an eloquent rebuttal, it wrote:
This conception of the obligations of the scholar is, to say the least, impoverished. It cannot be denied that each of us brings to the enterprise of scholarship certain pre-existing commitments and beliefs, as well as certain favored methodologies and organizing principles. It is impossible not to hope to find confirmation for what one has come to believe. But as a scholar, one must “look” not only to confirm one’s hopes, but also to face the possibility that the evidence may discomfort them. And even if one finds more evidence for the truth of one’s beliefs than evidence against them, all of the evidence must be acknowledged and treated fairly.
The report acknowledged that every scholar made mistakes. No one was perfect and few scholars had records free from occasional error. It observed that the professional standards of academic history encouraged the acknowledgement and correction of errors. But it also insisted that honest error was quite different to misconduct.
One of the factors that distinguished the two was the intention of the actor. An author’s intentions, of course, can be difficult to detect but the committee drew attention to the yardstick urged by American historian Ralph Luker: “When every qualitative error in a book is an error in the direction of the book’s thesis, you have prima facie evidence of fraud.”
Luker is right and his standard should be widely supported in the profession. If applied to Australian Aboriginal history it would be revealing. I have recently found historians have distorted the meaning and even changed the words of key primary source documents. They have exaggerated statistics and invented incidents that never occurred. Those caught out have pleaded they were guilty of nothing more than errors. Yet every one of their so-called errors leans in the same direction: to portray Australian colonial history as awash with bloodshed and Australian officials and settlers guilty of genocide.
The argument of the 1960s generation that all history is politicised and that historians can never shed their political prejudices has been the most corrupting influence to which the profession has ever succumbed. It has turned the traditional role of the historian, to try to seek the truth about the past, on its head. It has allowed historians to write from an overtly partisan position and to engage in exaggeration, selective omission and pure invention.
In indigenous and ethnic affairs, it has led some historians to justify this to themselves on the grounds that it is all for a good cause in the struggle against racism. But no cause is ever served by falsehood because eventually someone will come along and expose you. Truth always comes out in the end, and when it does it discredits those causes built on lies.