The view from Billinudgel

Let the record stand
There is nothing learnt by erasing, or defacing, the past

Captain Cook statue in St Kilda, Melbourne.

Many years ago, during a visit to Budapest, an enthusiastic Hungarian guide took me to view what is known as Heroes’ Square. This plaza is ringed by larger-than-life statues of warrior leaders who had slaughtered their way to power. Mass murderers. Not my kind of people.

But for the locals, they were selfless patriots, liberators of their lands. Any suggestion that the monuments should be removed – far less destroyed – was unthinkable. They were, after all, heroes. End of story.

But outside town there was a more intriguing showplace: Memento Park. After Hungary’s Russian hegemons had been expelled in 1989, triumphal Soviet monuments had been removed from public places and – instead of hurling them into the Danube – had been collected in a large paddock as a kind of theme park.

There, under the constant strains of martial music, they could be inspected in all their pompous absurdity and failed triumphalism. Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.

And there was a souvenir shop to remember them by. I purchased small empty tin labelled “The last breath of communism” and a T-shirt emblazoned with the words: “So Marx is dead and Lenin is dead. And I’m not feeling too well either.” And I thought, what a good idea: don’t destroy; rather, satirise and laugh at the follies of history so that they can be exposed and rejected in future.

I am not suggesting a similar project in Australia; our culture wars have never reached the same intensity, for which we may be truly grateful. But, rather than toppling and erasing our statues, surely putting them in their true perspective makes more sense than the mindless vandalism that is dividing our communities at present.

The idea of extra plaques to explain the atrocities, which were so much a part of our colonial past, is a no-brainer and should be implemented without delay. In particular, new statues commemorating heroes like Pemulwuy and other great leaders of the Indigenous resistance must be accorded pride of place in a reconciled nation.

And perhaps some names need to be expunged. There is nothing to commend the ghastly Belgian tyrant King Leopold II in any context, let alone an Australian one. But our history certainly includes men like James Cook, Arthur Phillip, Lachlan Macquarie and many of the pioneers who opened up the continent to white settlement. They were not flawless, and their faults should be recorded, but so should their achievements.

And it hardly needs saying that banning the production of contentious books, films, television shows and the rest is entirely counterproductive. Sure, criticise, refute and rebut them, but they were the creations of their times. And unless we understand those times, we will not understand where they were mistaken and how we can do better.

Like it or not, history is our past: it informs our present and offers us ways to shape our future. We do not need to embrace it, but we ignore it at our peril.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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