Past con­vic­tions

The Saturday Paper - - Letters & Editorial -

The point Stan Grant makes is sim­ple: his­tory is choice. It is the choice we make in the story we tell of our­selves. “His­tory is not dead, it is not past or re­dun­dant,” Grant writes, “it is alive in all of us: we are his­tory.”

It is from this po­si­tion that Grant ques­tions the public telling of a lie, an en­grav­ing on a plinth in the mid­dle of Syd­ney that says James Cook “dis­cov­ered this ter­ri­tory in 1770”.

Grant notes this in­scrip­tion is a con­crete ex­pres­sion of the le­gal fic­tion on which White Aus­tralia was founded, the prin­ci­ple of terra nul­lius. Of this statue in the mid­dle of Syd­ney he makes no rec­om­men­da­tion, just an ob­ser­va­tion: “Amer­i­cans are tear­ing down the mon­u­ments to hate, but we re­main obliv­i­ous to ours.”

So brit­tle is Aus­tralia’s re­la­tion­ship to its his­tory, that this was enough to pro­voke cen­sure. The Daily Tele­graph put Grant’s think­ing on its front page, un­der the head­line “Aussie Tal­iban”. Two men in Is­lamic robes were Pho­to­shopped un­der the statue, ap­par­ently tear­ing it down.

This is the qual­ity of de­bate in which this statue stakes its fic­tion. So ter­ri­fied of its his­tory is this coun­try that it will do any­thing not to reckon with it.

Peter Phelps, a mem­ber of the New South Wales gov­ern­ment, says: “At­tempts to re­write our public his­tory for the sake of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness – which is what these ac­tivist want to do – is lit­tle bet­ter than Stalin eras­ing his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent from pho­to­graphs.”

Ap­par­ently with­out irony, the NSW Trea­surer, Do­minic Per­rot­tet, says: “Com­mem­o­rat­ing one part of our his­tory shouldn’t have to come at the ex­pense of an­other part – that’s just di­vi­sive.”

Andrew Bolt calls it, “the Tal­iban Left – now de­stroy­ing mon­u­ments and Aus­tralia Day”. He goes on to deny the ex­is­tence of the Stolen Gen­er­a­tions and warns Grant that he doesn’t “re­ally want such ‘a full reck­on­ing of our na­tion’s past’ when he’s pro­mot­ing fake his­tory him­self as he rages in his well-cut jack­ets over Abo­rig­i­nal ‘in­jus­tice’ – ‘our suf­fer­ing, our hu­mil­i­a­tion’”.

No one has sug­gested pulling down this statue, or other stat­ues in this coun­try. Its in­scrip­tion has sim­ply been re­ferred to an ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee. Else­where, the re­sponse has been to erect plaques coun­ter­ing the nar­ra­tive of colo­nial relics.

But his­to­rian Keith Wind­schut­tle pre-empts those rec­om­men­da­tions. Facts do not mat­ter here.

The only con­cern is that the past re­mains in­tact and un­in­ter­ro­gated.

“The only re­sponse you are go­ing to get from them,” Wind­schut­tle says of the com­mit­tee, “is that the statue should be re­moved.”

Grant de­scribed Aus­tralian his­tory as a “hymn to white­ness”. The coun­try seems des­per­ate to keep it that way.

The out­rage this week at a sug­ges­tion that was never made is about mak­ing sure that hymn never changes. It is about power in this coun­try – a coun­try where colum­nists still deny that gov­ern­ment pol­icy ever took In­dige­nous chil­dren away from their par­ents, that con­tin­ues a quar­rel with the facts of the fron­tier wars, with the doc­u­mented mas­sacres of In­dige­nous peo­ple.

The Aus­tralia these colum­nists cling to is one chis­elled into a plinth in 1879. To them it does not mat­ter if what was chis­elled is un­true. The lie is com­fort­ing. Their self-im­age is built of their su­pe­ri­or­ity, and any­thing that ques­tions that ques­tions them.

These peo­ple are not thinkers. They are main­te­nance men, run­ning re­pairs on the fac­tory where they pro­duce their false im­age of the past. They are

• anx­ious, un­crit­i­cal, and they are in charge.

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