Tim Blair


New Criterion



Thursday, December 19, 2002

Uncle has always found that if he delays doing something long enough, and that something is worth doing, then someone else will do it, and Uncle can stay in bed that much longer.

So it has proved with my promise to say more about Professor Robert "Cudgels" Manne's hurtful claim that the painfully scholarly Keith Windschuttle had practised plagiarism in his new book, The fabrication of Aboriginal history, part one.

In this morning's Henny Herald the astute Miranda Devine - a clear case of tokenism come back to bite - deals in a business-like way with Manne.

In case the link has disappeared by the time good fortune leads you to this post, let me point out the heart of her case.

Manne has claimed that Windschuttle plagiarised another author, Robert Edgerton, by reproducing whole passages without attribution. This, according to Devine, Windschuttle has now denied, saying that "not even a clause... corresponds precisely to what Edgerton said." That is true, but there is a close similarity in a few phrases that both use. The clearest case is the one quoted by Manne. Edgerton says, in his Sick societies, page 47, that Tasmanian women used "sticks to prise up roots, wooden chisels to pry shellfish off rocks...", no doubt meaning "prise". Windschuttle says women used "wooden digging sticks to uproot vegetables and wooden chisels to prise shellfish from rocks."

See the similarity? Well done! You've probably already worked out why they're similar. Windschuttle and Edgerton are both paraphrasing the same principal author, whom they both cite, although Windschuttle does it more informatively when he says "The most useful overall view of Tasmanian Aboriginal cutlure is still H. Ling Roth, The Aborigines of Tasmania... which discusses the findings of all the original ethnographic studies." Since no Tasmanian aboriginal has lived a traditional lifestyle since about 1835, neither of the present-day authors can do much better than that.

Consider this; how many different ways are there to say that Tasmanians used a flat bit of wood to prise shellfish off rocks? Perhaps you could make it rhyme, or set it to music. Make sure you don't also decorate the bare facts that Roth records.

In other words, the similarity in the words used by these two authors has a simple explanation and in itself says nothing about plagiarism.

Now uncle can be as cynical, twisted and vicious as Cudgels Manne, and that without the assistance of frequent contact with undergraduates. But I find it hard to believe that anyone who hopes to play a part in pubic debate would commit such a transparent fabrication of an offence. But I used to think the same about the historians Reynolds and Ryan and their followers.

According to Devine, Melbourne University's Andrew Alexandra also assumed higher standards of Manne and criticised Windschuttle publicly. He now says "I have now looked over Windschuttle's book, where extensive referencing to the sources .. is to be found. Therefore, I apologise unreservedly to Keith Windschuttle..."

Another reputation bites the dust. What a week or two.

Now if you read the next bit you must promise not to tell Cudgels, who may be tempted to further disgrace himself.

For Windschuttle does in fact make a mistake in his citing of Edgerton.

On page 382 he says "This pattern of tribal conflict...has led the American anthropologist Robert Edgerton to describe the pre-contact Tasmanians as a 'profoundly maladapted population'." and goes on to quote Edgerton extensively, and accurately.

What Edgerton says, and I'll quote it at length to give you the full sense, is: "The Tasmanians have not been singled out for discussion because they were a profoundly maladapted population. On the contrary, compared to many societies that will be discussd in subsequent chapters, they were relatively well adapted at least by the criterion of maintaining their population over thousands of years. But their way of life was heardly ideal. Their feuding was deadly, disruptive and purposeless, their food supply was at times inadequate the their women were discontented. The population also maintained practices that could have proven to be maladaptive if the Tasmanians had been challenged by competing societies...When the Europeans arived, Tasmanian society quickly collapsed." (page 52).

In substance, Windschuttle and Edgerton are agreeing about everything but the measuring-stick to be applied in using the word "adaptive". It's purely a matter of definition, not of their judgement of Tasmanian culture and its consequences. Personally, I would feel more comfortable using the word "maladaptive" for the situation Edgerton describes. Still, I'm glad Cudgels was too careless to find it, and unscrupulous enough to use what he did find.

Windschuttle will continue to survive the "How dare he!" reactions of the usual crowd who wish genocide to have happened, because they just know it should have. And the Reynolds line that in denying a holocaust he is denying conflict.

His contribution to scholarship will stand, because unlike his critics he's behaved like a real historian should, checked the sources thoroughly and assessed them intelligently.

In ten years time Australian Aborigines will have emerged from the stereotypes within which left and right have confined them, and be seen as a remarkably diverse, and historically active, bunch of human beings.