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History wars: Malcolm Turnbull has fallen off the cliff of reason

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The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.
George Orwell

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between 

This is the moment Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister of Australia, fell off the cliff of reason:

“This is what Stalin did. When he fell out with his henchmen he didn’t just execute them, they were removed from all official photographs – they became non-persons, banished not just from life’s mortal coil, but from memory and history itself.”

Turnbull’s declaration was in response to the defacing of statues of NSW governor Lachlan Macquarie and explorer James Cook. The words sprayed onto them were: “No pride in genocide” and “Change the date”.

In this sulphurous miasma that we call political debate, the ghost of one of history’s greatest mass murderers and tyrants Joseph Stalin is evoked.

These acts, Turnbull steamed, were “part of a deeply disturbing and totalitarian campaign to not just challenge our history, but to deny it and obliterate it”.

He did take a breath and allow that there had been “injustice, hardship and cruelty” in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The way to go forward for society was to erect “new monuments as it preserves old ones”.

Thus in this sulphurous miasma that we call political debate, the ghost of one of history’s greatest mass murderers and tyrants Joseph Stalin is evoked. It’s nasty and brutish to do so, more so if it is a calculated use – the act to which I ascribe the label is so heinous only something equally heinous will do. Stalin, the man who was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of countrymen.

If it were not deliberate then it is equally worrying, for it means that subconsciously now, anything goes. The capacity to discern degrees of separation, to articulate nuances are lost. To win, anything goes. A sense of proportion flies out the window.

Is it beyond this nation’s capacity to see the nuances of history? Statues have their limitations.

Turnbull’s comments in the past week came amid renewed fighting in what seems now to be the never-ending war to claim ascendancy of this country’s culture and past. From the appropriate day to celebrate the nation to public statues, history is under siege. This would all be well and good if it were done with a calm forensic attitude to the truth, but it is not. Nor, depressingly, could one expect it to be done these days.

History is often hostage to ideology. This is no more so apparent than in the defence of the realm put forward by former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, and the cohort of conservative commentators and the clutch of MPs who deem this history of ours, this imperfect rendering of the past, to be set in stone. It would be an exercise in self-destruction to allow an alternative interpretation of how we got where we are, and therefore who we are, to chip away at the foundations of their beliefs. Thus it does not, cannot happen. Riders, of course, come into the argument, such as “of course bad things were done, but the good outweighs the bad”.  But in the end, the fallback position is: you cannot rewrite history.

Literally, this is true. No one is Marty McFly or HG Wells’ Time Traveller. But most of history is fluid because as more research is done, the shape of a time, an era, an event changes. Some things, some historical figures are incontrovertibly as they are. But over the vast horizon of history, few things are black and white and when the facts change, thus must opinion change to agree with the facts.

Try looking for that in Canberra, or any parts beyond.

One would think Stan Grant was just a few steps from the guillotine for treason for his temerity in questioning the message that statues such as that of James Cook convey.

Grant wrote of the statue of Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park: “It has stood since 1879. When it was unveiled more than 60,000 people turned out. The procession at the time was the largest ever seen in Sydney. No one present then questioned that this was the man who founded the nation. But think about that today. Think of those words: ‘Discovered this territory.’

“My ancestors were here when Cook dropped anchor. We know now that the first peoples of this continent had been here for at least 60,000 years, for us the beginning of human time. Yet this statue speaks to emptiness, it speaks to our invisibility, it says that nothing truly mattered, nothing truly counted until a white sailor first walked on these shores.”

Grant didn’t call for the statue to be razed. He called for there to be an acknowledgment of another truth. Perhaps another set of words to tell the full story. That is all, and yet it is everything.

To reimagine the past, this is not revolution. It is evolution.

It is to the government’s discredit that it has ministers who arch their backs aghast at this. Peter Dutton, the Immigration Minister, decried the suggestion referencing “good, decent Australians . . . the silent majority who won’t tolerate this sort of reconstruction”.

His choice of language – good, decent, silent majority – would be risible, if it were not so appalling.

Words are weapons. Say something often enough and it can take on a patina of truth. If enough believe it, it abides in their eyes as the filter as to how they accept and reject events.

Historian Tony Taylor in his book Denial writes that “denialism betrays history by attempting to distort our understandings of the actual past, or history, as it was lived. It does this by wilfully bending the evidence to suit the unyielding and self-interested purpose of the deniers”.

This is accentuated in this so-called “post-truth” world. Adam Smith, a senior lecturer at University College London, writing in a recent issue of the magazine World Histories (a BBC production) says that “in post-truth world, politics is conducted in a frenzy of self-reinforcing bubbles”.

To control the present, one must have command of the past.

The late Australian historian John Hirst wrote of an exchange between John Farrell, editor of the Daily Telegraph and English writer Rudyard Kipling. Farrell, Hirst writes, sent a poem to Kipling on the jubilee of Queen Victoria. He was hoping for praise, in the poem he wrote of “the bloody excesses of the empire’s conquest and took Farrell to task for his easy moralism”.

Kipling replied: “A man might just as well accuse his father of a taste in fornication (citing his own birth as an instance) as a white man mourn over his land’s savagery in the past.”

Hirst said he shared the view that was it “morally impossible for settler Australians to regret or apologise for the conquest on which colonial Australia was built”.

This is the view of John Howard, and many other conservatives. But Hirst adds a crucial rider: “A position of hard realism about the nation resting on conquest certainly does not require that we abandon sympathy for Aborigines as fellow humans. We must understand what Aborigines have experienced since 1788 if any policy-making in Aboriginal affairs is to be effective.”

This is an understanding that is simply too far a stretch for many. Is it beyond this nation’s capacity to see the nuances of history? Statues have their limitations. To reimagine the past, this is not revolution. It is evolution.

Outside the cities, beyond the shock-jocks’ madness and the tabloids screaming, there are memorials to the degradation and death that is part of our history.

Queensland academic Joanna Besley wrote in At the Intersection of History and Memory: Monuments in Queensland that “the desire for monuments is part of the colonialist impulse. Like cartography, the erection of outdoor cultural objects is a European way of marking the landscape.

“In the Western tradition of commemoration, material objects such as plaques, statues and cairns are made to stand for memory. In physically taking the place of the mental form of memory, these objects endeavour to safeguard, prolong or preserve social memory into the future.”

Outside the cities, beyond the shock-jocks’ madness and the tabloids screaming, in the stillness of the bush, and beyond, there are memorials to the degradation and death that is part of our history.

At Myall Creek, there is this inscription on a memorial to the massacre of 28 Wirrayaraay women, children and old men by a group of stockmen in 1838.




There are similar memorials in other parts of the land, such as this at Port Fairy:

In memory of the thousands of aboriginal people who were massacred between 1837 and 1844 in this area of Port Fairy.

Today we pay our respects to them for the unnecessary sacrifices they made.

Your spirit still lives on within our people. Wuwuurk.

The greatest monument to acceptance of the past, in all its strains, would be to eliminate the place of William Hazlitt’s maxim that “prejudice is the child of ignorance” in our culture.

We wouldn’t need to walk past this memorial in a park. It would live on, generation to generation, tribe to tribe, within us.

24 responses to “History wars: Malcolm Turnbull has fallen off the cliff of reason

  1. I agree.
    We should accept revisions to the story of our past. But we should also accept that history can be untidy because conquest is never fair and is usually defined by the victor. Fair or not, conquest is a natural and perennial part of history. And you can’t un-break the egg.
    But we can correct the clearly obvious errors of fact and fix the things that continue to be exclusionary.
    Changing the plaque on Cook’s statue in no way diminishes his astonishing feats as a navigator and leader.
    Changing the date of Australia Day in no way disenfranchises those who fought for the country or Australians who are not of indigenous heritage.
    We should take the time to let go of the dogma and think of the potential for inclusion – at no cost to anyone.
    In this sense, I’d love Turnbull to lead. He’s a smart guy and probably gets this.
    But I suspect there may be too many of us (voters) who are gun-shy about the wave of counter-dogma and everyone is taking their positions on the ramparts.

    1. Agreed.
      I have a problem with Australia Day because it doesn’t commemorate the Establishment of Australia which was on the 1st January 1901, not 26/01/1788 which was when the first European settlers arrived at a place called Sydney.
      The oral history of Australians has tended to be ignored.
      “If it isn’t recorded somewhere in writing then it didn’t happen” which is, of course, complete rubbish.
      Either version might be correct, or neither.
      The claims of one version don’t diminish either, just add something for historians to argue over in perpetuity!

  2. I live in the Kimberley in WA. Scattered over a landmass twice the size of Germany are millions of art and heritage sites showing at least 50,000 years of ‘history’. Of interest are the stones which are either for directions or symbolise stories. These stones became the corner stones, menhirs, obelisks and then statues as western civilisation grew. Statues mean something to the west because they have been ‘anthropomorphised’, it is what our society relates to. The cairns and menhirs of ancient times meant nothing to us because they weren’t anthropomorphic.

    Here in the Kimberley, the ancient art tells us that people were painting humans 10,000 – 20,000 years ago. It ends badly with a war period that lasts for 2,000 years. In the last 10,000 years people went back to animism and no people were painted.

    Why? Because when one leaves the natural world and begins to paint themselves in the image of god, it ends up in a bad way.

    Perhaps those lessons are as poignant today?

    Mark Jones

  3. Can’t see how ‘the history wars’ can be sheeted home to Turnbull. He didn’t start this pathetic attack on our origins. That was a typical wannabe leftist agenda stunt mimicking American anarcho/Marxist activists who have surrendered reason to a new querulous form of activism. Let’s get over this new virus of cultural dysmorphia.

    1. Oh ignorant one, there are 2 sides to almost every discussion, both sides need to be given equal oppurtunity, neither should be stamped on…………………

    2. It’s nothing to do with our “origins”, just the truth. As we learn more from written records the truth of events change, the myths, created and evolved, are extinguished. Cook never discovered Australia, it was known to exist for centuries before his arrival and the island of Tasmania was “discovered” by Abel Tasman in the 17th century. Cook mapped the east coast of Australia which was one of the tasks hek was required to do on his voyage.

    3. So, history set in stone? Who writes history? Do you know? Do I?
      Why would you describe such questioning as a leftist agenda and a virus?
      Why would any thinking Australian (from the left or otherwise) deny Aborigines their right to feel cheated and robbed of their lands upon the arrival of Europeans?
      What have we to fear if the good and bad of our history are told? We’re big enough, Just stop this pathetic name-calling and cliches – wannabe, anarchy/marxist, activism, cultural dysmorphia – really?

  4. We need all our history is kept out on show so our young can see what has happened ,be aware of all the bad things that were done and of the good things , we can be ashamed of those people who did the bad things even though they thought it was the norm and be proud of the people who did good things , I think the word is” Acknowledge ” know that it all happened don’t tear down statues because if you do the part they played will be forgotten , Like in the USA General Lees statue reminds them all about slavery, something not to be forgotten ! What we need is to do it all better now , stop the huge divisions in our society from becoming worse , make the country a better and fairer place to live!!

    1. What a load of codswallop. The statue of General Lee you’re referring to was erected in Charlottesville in 1924, almost sixty years after the defeat of the traitors who fought to defend slavery. The statue wasn’t put there to remember the evils of the past or even General Lee; it was there to remind the black and white populations that whites were still very much in command of black lives thanks to Jim Crow and segregation.

      There are no statues of Hitler in public squares in Germany, so according to you some should be erected post-haste, lest the horros of nazism be forgotten.

  5. This is a judicious piece: the past is the past, and we imagine that we do things and imagine our world differently now. Statues can serve as uncomfortable reminders, warnings. We cannot retrospectively castigate individuals for behaving according to the mores of their times. In the 1964 by-election at Smethwick, in the UK, the Conservatives fought under the slogan ‘if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’. That was when keepers of lodging houses stipulated ‘no dogs, no blacks, no Irish’. You imagine that that probably wouldn’t happen now until you remember Pauline Hansen or Donald Trump. Cook instigated a catastrophe, but one can very reasonably suspect that if it had not been him a French expedition would have made landfall on the continent some time around 1770. Europeans were exploring the Pacific. Technology allowed it, and technology, as we see today, does not self-censor.

  6. Warwick McFADYEN – adding more nuance to deaden the shrillness of Dutton and PM Tremble whose understanding of Australia’s history over the past 229+ years is so limited. Friends were among those non-Aboriginal Australians in the act of Reconciliation which is the Myall Creek Massacre Memorial between Bingara and Delungra in northern NSW. The way of reading and acknowledging our national post-invasion history is not a divided matter – we are all together (with Stan, if you like) – Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike – alongside one another – seeking to replace the terrors of the past with respect and dignity and pride for that existence pre-1788 and to make amends for the dreadful things and lingering effects from the post-1788 era until now.

  7. This infatuation by the green left with Aboriginal history and culture is beyond bizarre.

    If anyone cares to read the factual history of settlement of the original Australian colonies, there was remarkably little fighting between the Aborigines and settlers.

    Aboriginal ‘society’ was a collection of extended clans (tribes if you will) which engaged in perpetual warfare with each other over resources, women and territory.

    At Sydney Cove, the explicit aim and record of Arthur Philip was one of peaceful co-existence with Aboriginals….the famous Bennelong ended up in Britain. Far from warfare with the settlers, Bennelong’s clan saw an alliance with them as beneficial to defeating its tribal enemies.

    There are many cases, well into the late 19th century of tribal warfare killing far more Aboriginals than fights with settlers.

    Australia was settled by enlightened 18th century British following the philosophies of William Wilberforce rather than George Washington. Cook was a giant of his era, Philip, Flinders and others were exceptional dedicated men seeking a humane accomodation with Aboriginal clans which were basic hunter gatherers with technologies and organization far different from those of the settlers.

    There were no large scale Aboriginal armies engaged in battles such as occurred with the Maori in New Zealand; where Maori ‘nations’ fought together against a common enemy and with which a settlement and historical treaty was made.

    60000 years is now approaching 80000 years according to some inflaters. So what? All our ancestors were around 60000, 80000, 100000 years ago. The white ones were developing science from the Ancients, increasing their populations with expanded agriculture, building cities, navigating oceans, vaccinating, sewering, making steel and writing the ‘Origin of Species’.

    So Stan Grant should be very thankful to his white ancestors for the Australia of health, safety and freedom we all enjoy. If he were here 250 years ago, Bennelong’s clan might have speared his 5G-father on the banks of the Parramatta River.

    1. This response is just silly. The inscription on the statue is factually clearly, demonstably, undeniably, incorrect. Stan pointed this out and merely suggested we fix it up. Nothing radical here , no “infatuation” with anything here. just a simple statement of the obvious. All the rest of your contribution is totally irrelevant guff.

      1. So what is factually incorrect? Discovery of this Territory? Cook did discover and chart the East Coast of Australia. No Aborigine or clan would have knowledge of the geography of Australia more than a few days walk let alone over thousands of miles.

        What was the extent of Aboriginal knowledge of geography? Do you know? Was there ever a chart drawn on bark showing the lat and long of any feature of the Australian landscape over hundreds of miles? Or was it all in a dream?

        1. Cook was the first European known to have explored the East Coast of Australia. He was not the first person. That’s all.
          And, yes, the knowledge and mapping of the whole of Australia was and is one of the remarkable achievements of these people. Their paintings and stories have detailed images of the geography and of the distant past geography.
          Maybe learn something of this. It is fascinating.

        2. I think Archie that before anyone could intelligently respond to your fairy-stories on Indigenous pre-and post-Invasion societies – you would yourself need to do some rigorous studies. It is your general ignorance which in 2017 (when you wrote) is appalling – one wonders where you have been looking over the past 50 years. Honestly!

    2. Yes, Cook and Phillip approached the aboriginal people with courtesy and friendliness. But later white settlers did commit horrific massacres of aboriginal people.
      Scientific data provide convincing evidence that aboriginal settlement dates back at least 65,000 years. The earliest evidence of modern humans in Europe is 45,000 years. The first migrations out of Africa are believed to have travelled Eastwards so the Middle East, India and South East Asia had modern humans before Australia.
      The joined land masses of Europe and Asia, and their proximity to Africa meant that technologies and culture were traded throughout that vast region.
      Australia is interesting because they were isolated for so long.
      Nothing suggests an innate racial superiority of Europeans over aboriginal Australians.
      Why bother trying to claim there is?

  8. It is important to learn from History, memory after all is most of what we are, day to day, so history is who we are in the longer term, – but history written by the winners is only half of history, half of who we are insofar as we are our history.
    Current neo-liberalism philosophy is to deny history, one may question the wisdom, but of course there is no wisdom in neo-liberalism, just a masturbatory celebration of “we are rich because rich is good so we are rich and wise because we are rich” and one of the reasons history is dismissed or ridiculised is a not that far long ago piece of history, the conquering of Rome.
    We know for sure from what happened in Rome that the Rich destroyed Rome by parasiting on the poor, – when taxes became so high farmers had to leave the land and those taxes evaporated, they stopped paying the army, so the Soldiers, after a while gave up and went home to try and help their families, so when the germanic tribes got to Rome, there were only the Rich there, (and their slaves alas) partying and politicking till the bitter end, and very easy to despoil and kill, slowly, oh what fun.
    Being Rich, having money and the power it gives in todays society does not create wisdom, – on the contrary, it celebrates greed and self indulgence above all else, – these folk are insane, they should not be allowed to influence the world at all, let alone run it, they can only ruin it, rationalising, and even glorialising, their greed and selfishness to the same bitter end as they did in Rome.
    If the rest of us don’t wake up and start really looking at what is going on and intelligently changing it, they will drag us down with them, standing on our heads as we all go under, as before.
    Some further reading on that, the which I believe is germaine to the Title of the essay, and re-inforces the concept of Turnbull losing his marbles from our perspective.

  9. Australia Day is interesting. It had no significance in my childhood. We sang an Advance Australia Fair with the second verse “when Gallant Cook for Albion sailed…” I hate the bloody thing. As to Cook, he never claimed to have discovered Australia, just clarified what he called “doubtful points”. Heaven’s it is what I was taught, but he wasn’t the first Englishman by 90 years, that was Dampier. He was following the Dutch, certainly knowing Tasman’s maps and likely following the Portuguese to boot. Most of this was well known, though Portugal was not thought of. Cook gets credit and blame that he should not. Macquarie is problematic. He did a great deal of good for the progress of part of NSW, but apparently much harm in certain indigenous conflicts. Yet he also promoted ceremonies. He was complicated. I would like to see Australia Day changed. An indigenous friend from the top end says Darwin is no place for her on that day due to the overt racism of those celebrating. We have much to celebrate in making a nation from such unpromising beginnings. Bigots like Dutton could not survive if we took the thing seriously.

  10. So what are we to make in 2018 of the claims of generations of nation-building by the Downer Family in South Australia by Alexander Downer – now that we know that much of that “nation building” was on the promulgation of/engagement in massacres of Indigenous peoples in that then colony – over the latter 19th century. Will the Downers be paying compensation – returning land – to the survivors? If not, why not?

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