THE NATION RE­VIEWED

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - COM­MENT BY DON WAT­SON

Don Wat­son plus Zoë Mor­ri­son,

Pa­trick Wit­ton, Paul Con­nolly and Ni­cole Gill

Amid Amer­ica’s great clam­our about mon­u­ments to the he­roes of the Con­fed­er­acy, this much can be said for them – un­like vir­tu­ally all other mon­u­ments, these hon­our his­tory’s losers. There’s some­thing haunt­ing about them: per­haps not the tow­er­ing eques­trian Robert E Lee, but his rag­tag rebel sol­diers frozen in stone are of­ten poignant fig­ures and can in­flame the same kind of sen­ti­ment as Henry Law­son’s statue in the Syd­ney Do­main – be­cause you know his gaunt fig­ure also housed a loser.

Of them­selves, nei­ther the stat­ues nor the men they rep­re­sent should be con­tentious. This was a war be­tween com­pa­tri­ots, be­tween broth­ers and sis­ters, and it was a close-run thing: the Union has had no choice but to live with the rup­ture ever since. His­tory’s ten­dency to award all the spoils and all the glory to the vic­tor and none to the van­quished is rarely just, and, be­cause it was po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing to the Union that had just been saved, in this case it was also im­prac­ti­cal.

Had it been only the fallen sol­diers of the South re­mem­bered, no one could rea­son­ably com­plain. What are they but mar­ble clichés stuffing up his­tory with dead con­vic­tions? To be sure, there will be a few un­sta­ble ci­ti­zens who live in hope that one day, Disney-like, in a shower of star­dust, they will all spring to life and with them the whole an­te­bel­lum world. But the gen­eral view has been a sort

of mul­ti­cul­tural tol­er­ance; if sen­ti­men­tal­is­ing the lost cause helps es­tab­lish peace and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, let these losers – “dead-en­ders”, Don­ald Rums­feld might have called them – have their stat­ues.

The trou­ble with the South­ern stat­ues is that they are mon­u­ments less to the rebels’ sac­ri­fice than to their cause. And their cause is ob­nox­ious, both to African Amer­i­cans and to the Union from which they broke away. The words in­scribed upon them make this clear. They were erected – most of them by the “United Daugh­ters of the Con­fed­er­acy” be­tween 1900 and 1920 – in mem­ory of the sol­diers and the “sa­cred cause for which they con­tended”. The cause was “holy”, “sub­lime”, “glo­ri­ous” and “pa­tri­otic”. The rebels were “an­i­mated by the spirit of 1776”; they died not for the cot­ton in­ter­est and slav­ery but for “state rights guar­an­teed un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion”. It was to the state rights gam­bit that Martin Luther King’s “words of in­ter­po­si­tion and nul­li­fi­ca­tion” re­ferred in his fa­mous speech. If the words on the Con­fed­er­ate memo­ri­als are not quite trea­sonous, they are at least the equal of flag-burn­ing, which, though pro­tected by the First Amend­ment, is widely re­garded as heinous. These mon­u­ments burn the flag in per­pe­tu­ity. They read as praise to an in­sur­gency, which would be strange enough in any coun­try but is stranger still in a coun­try gripped in roughly equal de­grees by pa­tri­o­tism and fear. But bet­ter to speak of state rights than civil rights, the supremacy of the Con­sti­tu­tion rather than the supremacy of white peo­ple.

The folk who want to pre­serve the memo­ri­als in their present pub­lic places have taken to say­ing “Her­itage not hate”, a slo­gan that might be more cred­i­ble if there were any other signs in their hol­lowed-out towns and ru­ined land­scapes that her­itage con­cerned them more than, say, clas­si­cal bal­let or fer­ret­ing. In fact, the cause the mon­u­ments hon­our is the reign of ter­ror and ex­clu­sion known as Jim Crow. As the Na­tional Trust for His­toric Preser­va­tion put it, “Decades after the war, ad­vo­cates of the Lost Cause erected these mon­u­ments all over the coun­try to vin­di­cate the Con­fed­er­acy at the bar of his­tory, ex­cise the cen­tral is­sues of slav­ery and eman­ci­pa­tion from our un­der­stand­ing of the war, and reaf­firm a sys­tem of state-sanc­tioned white supremacy.” In other words, the mon­u­ments re­write his­tory, air­brush in­con­ve­nient facts, and sat­isfy the (po­lit­i­cally cor­rect) re­quire­ments of su­prem­a­cist ide­ol­ogy.

So what should we do with Cap­tain Cook? There he stands in Syd­ney’s Hyde Park, the En­light­en­ment’s phe­nom­e­nal mariner and the man who “dis­cov­ered this ter­ri­tory 1770”. If ever his­tory had a win­ner it was James Cook – well, at least up un­til the Hawai­ians got him. And he was the dis­cov­erer, if dis­cov­erer means the first bloke from York­shire to see the east coast of the con­ti­nent. But “dis­cov­erer” is not half of it. He sailed up the east coast, map­ping as he went and giv­ing Euro­pean names to ev­ery­thing he saw, in­clud­ing the name New South Wales. He en­coun­tered Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, shot one, ex­pressed the view that these sav­ages were far hap­pier than Euro­peans, and de­clared the con­ti­nent terra nul­lius. And he “hoisted English Coulers” and took pos­ses­sion of the whole of the east coast. It was Cook’s do­ings in 1770 that opened the way for coloni­sa­tion in 1788.

So even be­fore we come to the dis­pos­ses­sion of the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple and the bru­tal crimes in­volved, it can’t be too dif­fi­cult for us to see that, ma­jes­tic hu­man be­ing though he was, the words at the base of Cook’s mon­u­ment do not be­gin to de­scribe the ef­fect of his dis­cov­ery. And if we were to for­get the dis­pos­ses­sion and the crimes, Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians might still say their lack of re­spect for Cook’s like­ness in Hyde Park is proxy for an in­voice for ser­vices ren­dered – as un­paid labour in the pas­toral in­dus­try, for ex­am­ple; as do­mes­tic labour, agri­cul­tural labour, po­lice, all kinds of es­sen­tial labour for which they were paid pre­cisely noth­ing and though not quite slaves had much in com­mon with them. Leave out two thirds of the catas­tro­phe that fol­lowed his dis­cov­ery, and it’s still a won­der that Cook’s statue has been de­faced just once.

And yet the greater won­der is that our prime min­is­ter de­clared the de­face­ment a “cow­ardly crim­i­nal”, “Stal­in­ist” act. What? Maybe we shouldn’t ex­pect Peter Dut­ton to know Stalin from a dead kan­ga­roo, but the prime min­is­ter comes from the very apex of Syd­ney civil­i­sa­tion. Does he mean to im­ply that the de­face­ment or de­struc­tion of stat­ues is nec­es­sar­ily Stal­in­ist? Even stat­ues of Stalin? On the face of it, the PM’s re­mark was as asi­nine as any­thing said by an Aus­tralian prime min­is­ter since Fed­er­a­tion. It just goes to show that a ca­reer in ven­ture cap­i­tal is no guar­an­tee of know­ing any­thing much; or that it’s dif­fi­cult to sell your soul to Peter Dut­ton with­out hand­ing over at least part of your brain as well.

But Mal­colm Turn­bull does have a bit of nasty tabloid form. In 2015, when in a se­ries of tweets Scott McIn­tyre ques­tioned the virtue of the An­zacs and Aus­tralia’s mil­i­tary his­tory, the PM de­clared the sports re­porter’s re­marks “de­spi­ca­ble” and said he found it “dif­fi­cult to think of more of­fen­sive or in­ap­pro­pri­ate com­ments”, which sug­gests he wasn’t think­ing very deeply. De­spite ef­forts to turn its myths into the canons of a re­li­gion, Aus­tralia’s mil­i­tary his­tory re­mains con­testable, as all his­tory tends to in non-Stal­in­ist coun­tries. The fact that this coun­try is not Stal­in­ist did not help Scott McIn­tyre, who was sacked by his em­ployer, SBS.

The prime min­is­ter was just as sav­age about the de­ci­sion of in­ner Mel­bourne lo­cal coun­cils to give up

cel­e­brat­ing Aus­tralia Day on 26 Jan­uary. At the be­hest of the Great Leader the cen­tral gov­ern­ment at once is­sued a di­rec­tive to the ef­fect that all coun­cils would par­tic­i­pate in gov­ern­ment-man­dated pa­tri­otic cel­e­bra­tions, or face very se­ri­ous penal­ties!

Again, can it be so very hard to un­der­stand why 26 Jan­uary is not only less than ideal, but for many peo­ple a pos­i­tively of­fen­sive read­ing of Aus­tralian his­tory? In which case, rather than heap­ing mad con­tu­melies on all who ques­tion it, why not put your prime min­is­te­rial mind to com­ing up with an al­ter­na­tive? (The US has a na­tional hol­i­day in hon­our of Martin Luther King. Could not Aus­tralia have a Mabo Day – what­ever the name, a day given over to Indige­nous his­tory?) It might be 20 years or 50, but sooner or later it will change.

Whether they are in Alabama, Aus­tralia or Trafal­gar Square, the prob­lem with memo­ri­als is that they freeze his­tory – and knowl­edge – in its tracks. They per­pet­u­ate the myths that at once sus­tain us and, with the con­nivance of our lead­ers, keep us stupid and obe­di­ent. One so­lu­tion might be to have many more. Wher­ever Cook stands, erect one to Ben­ne­long or Tru­ganini ad­ja­cent, or to an Abo­rig­i­nal group. Where it is in­scribed that Cook “dis­cov­ered” this ter­ri­tory, add the rider that he dis­cov­ered it for Bri­tain. And not too far away let it be known that an­ces­tors of Aus­tralia’s Indige­nous peo­ple dis­cov­ered this ter­ri­tory at least 60,000 years ear­lier.

Memo­ri­als to our more re­cent past might also help di­lute the mat­ter. Why not have Keat­ing, mounted, look­ing out to­wards the heads? And Hawke and Kelty too, on ponies. Each one in a third of a tri­corn hat. Of course, the Tories will want their own tri­umvi­rate. Howard would have to be one of them, but who else? Tim Fis­cher? Not Mal­colm, not the way he’s go­ing – not even if he of­fers to pay for it him­self. And not Tony Ab­bott, surely. Un­less, of course, like the Con­fed­er­ates, you reckon we should hon­our lost causes.

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