The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.
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.
IN MEMORY OF THE WIRRAYARAAY PEOPLE WHO
WERE MURDERED ON THE SLOPES OF THIS RIDGE
IN AN UNPROVOKED BUT PREMEDITATED ACT IN
THE LATE AFTERNOON OF 10 JUNE, 1838
ERECTED ON 10 JUNE 2000 BY A GROUP OF
ABORIGINAL AND NON-ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIANS
IN AN ACT OF RECONCILITAION, AND IN
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF THE TRUTH OF
OUR SHARED HISTORY
WE WILL REMEMBER THEM
NGIYANI WINAGAY GANUNGA
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.