Friday, August 25, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

A dishonest debate about dishonest history
Arguments about history are good, but should be based on actual facts


Years ago I was taught the name of the man who discovered the clitoris.

It sounds like the beginning of a joke, and in a sense it is. It’s an obviously laughable idea.

It’s true that something happened. That man might have been the first academic to give it a name, or to document it in widely distributed anatomical sketches. That is a moment worth recording. But to suggest that any man discovered something women have known about for, well, forever is a distortion of both history and language. It was a reflection not of what actually occurred, but of the way men, who for a long time wrote history, understood what had actually occurred.

The lesson here is pretty simple: our understanding of history changes all the time. Sometimes we learn new facts, which prove that what we thought we knew was wrong. Sometimes we learn that we have been looking at events from one perspective only. These new understandings of history are then written down. Sometimes they add to what we know. Sometimes they change what we know: in other words, replace it. Is history rewritten? Yes, all the time. If that were not the case we wouldn’t need historians.

In case you’ve missed it, and I hope for your sake you have, a controversy sprung up this week after Stan Grant suggested an inscription on the base of a statue of Captain Cook be changed. The inscription said that Cook “discovered” Australia. Grant says this is clearly untrue, given Indigenous people had been here for tens of thousands of years. As he put it, “What were we doing all that time, just waiting for white people to find us?”

The predictable reaction came from the predictable quarters. History was being rewritten, Stalinism was on the march, you get the drift.

But in fact – and this is obvious when you think about it for longer than ten seconds – all that Grant is arguing for, really, is accuracy. You don’t have to care about politics. You don’t even have to care about the lives of Indigenous people. (Though I think you should care about both.) You just have to care about facts, and the precise use of language. The fact that Indigenous people were already living in Australia when Cook arrived is undisputed. So … why are we pretending something happened when we know it didn’t?

It’s interesting to note that Malcolm Turnbull last year acknowledged that the word “invasion” could be fairly used for the colonisation of Australia (and good on him). It was odd, then, to hear him today saying that Grant was “dead wrong” to suggest that the plaque be changed. But how can it be true that white Australians both invaded a country already containing people and discovered it? And if only the former is true, why insist on preserving misleading statements about history on public view, as though they are in fact accurate?

What always surprises me about the arguments you hear in situations like this is that they are precisely the opposite of what they claim to be. Those who wish to “preserve” the past profess a deep passion for history, while making an argument that we should ignore actual history in favour of outdated, inaccurate history. We should be taught what we have always been taught, rather than what we now know to be the case. It is an argument for propaganda, a victory for the obscuring fog of nostalgia.

Grant, by the way, didn’t argue that the statue should be removed, just that the plaque should be changed. But even if he had wanted the statue torn down, that is still not an argument about history. We don’t need a statue of Captain Cook to tell us that he existed. A statue is a choice about what aspects of our history to celebrate, in public places. This, too, is the misunderstanding – I suspect deliberate misunderstanding by some – about Australia Day. Changing the date won’t erase the fact that the First Fleet arrived in Port Jackson on that date. That fact will be taught as long as Australia exists. It is simply a choice about whether to celebrate an event – that everyone acknowledges happened! – which caused and continues to cause deep sorrow to many people. An event that even our prime minister acknowledges can be called invasion.

Anyway, I find all this stuff maddening. I’m up for the disagreement. I’m up for a debate about what our history actually tells us, and which aspects to celebrate. But the fact that John Howard and Tony Abbott and Alan Jones are determined to have a dishonest debate, based on emotionally manipulative, clichéd phrases like “rewriting history” – not unlike Abbott’s twisting of the marriage debate into an argument about whether you like the direction of the country – tells you that they don’t have much confidence in their own case at all. And that’s how you know they’re wrong. 

In other news


In light of recent events

The (Incomplete) Field Guide to the Smokers of Australia

Oslo Davis

“Smokers today are an endangered species. So, in an effort to document this record-low 16% of the adult population before they take their last deep, smooth drag, here is The (Incomplete) Field Guide to the Smokers of Australia.”  READ ON


In search of the ecstatic at Supersense

Sophia Brous assembled another magnificently eclectic program for her festival’s second outing

Jenny Valentish

“When news first broke in 2015 that Sophia Brous was curating an inaugural Festival of the Ecstatic, my initial thought was: that’s an interesting gauntlet to throw down to the stoic gig-goers of Melbourne. Can one achieve euphoria with one’s arms folded? But then Brous is a prodigious, cross-disciplinary talent with a black book of reverie merchants and no apparent self-destructive streak to sabotage it all.”  READ ON


Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.



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