Down with the History Wars

History wars are  political struggles over the meaning of history. History at its best is contested, a battleground in fact, and when done well it is a joy.

‘History Wars’, by contrast, are something else. In Australia, cultural warriors (whether as academics or pundits or politicians) deploy history as a rhetorical weapon for their team. It can be about what is taught in schools, what anniversaries mean and how/whether to mark them (Australia Day – Invasion Day?), and above all, who we should regard as heroes, victims, or rogues. Was Australia’s colonisation largely a peaceful affair on a quiet continent? Or was it a violent one of frontier slaughters, often unrecorded? Should we commemorate Anzac Day, and if so what does it mean? Is it a militarist and reactionary nod to obsolete imperial values, or our duty to honour the dead to whom we owe a debt of gratitude?

Ultimately, these debates are about something deeper, the caliber and legitimacy of our society. They carry significant political freight, because they inform questions about the distribution of goods (land rights, welfare, public esteem and ritual honour), and in a pretty successful and lucky society like Australia, give energetic political believers something to fight over.

Admittedly, I am drawn to these rows, because they demonstrate that history is not ‘dead’ but a breathing child of the past. Collective memory pulses through our contemporary struggles. They raise all the most potent questions.

But the wars also supply answers that are emotionally gratifying, inflammatory and ultimately shallow.

Consider this offering from two of Australia’s most prominent and influential historians, Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds. We should let go of the Anzac mythology, rather than reinvigorate it, they argue. Not only does the public reverence for the Gallipoli campaign and Australia’s wars entail reactionary and outmoded ideas about nationbuilding. The Anzacs weren’t like us. They were patriarchal and racist men who stood for an Empire whose core ideas were eccentric:

They were the proud representatives of the white Australia policy, which promoted racial purity at home and abroad. Indeed, much of their self-confidence and elan came from their belief in their racial superiority. They embodied it in their swagger, proud bearing and well-nourished physiques. The dark side of such racial cockiness was the contemptuous treatment of non-Europeans and, in the Middle East, the Egyptians, Turks, Palestinians and Bedouin.

Point the finger at forbears who believed different things than us, and who should ‘scape whipping? We wouldn’t have any heroes left. No doubt many Diggers did have unkind views about foreigners. Like the people who were involved in dispossessing Aborigines and committing frontier violence, they were also ordinary people put under extraordinary pressure and terrors we can hardly imagine, and who often met that fate with dignity, bravery and a sense of humor. This is not a simple story.

And as Geoffrey Blainey notes, it is not one of simple blind devotion to Britain. Australians fought for all sorts of reason, including pay, and its governments and people calculated their own interests in a hard-headed way. What’s more, some of those wars, such as the one against Japanese Imperialism, were not contemptible exercises in militaristic fantasy. Those who dismiss military history ought first to read some.

Who should we celebrate instead, as the real heroes who birthed the Australian nation? Reynolds, an activist and scholar sympathetic with the plight of Aborigines, and Lake, a feminist, find that we should replace the Diggers with…people like Reynolds and Lake:

We suggest that Australians might look to alternative national traditions that gave pride of place to equality of opportunity and the pursuit of social justice: the ideals of a living wage and decent working conditions, the long struggle for sexual and racial equality.

This is the sterile and superficial place that the ‘History Wars’ take us to. History, a complex, paradoxical and rich human thing, is reduced to a boring tale of ‘goodies’ versus ‘baddies.’ We should plunder history to give three cheers to our ‘team’, and boo and snarl at the icons of our political opponents. The rightist and conservative version, that we should honour soldiers and businessmen and denounce socialists and lefty intellectuals, and police public arguments in search of culturally treacherous aliens, is just as tedious, and just as dispiriting.

As Reynolds and Lake fail to recognise, history is full of contradictions that remind us of how human beings are made of crooked timber. The people of the past are inconsistent, and if studied carefully and humbly, do not obey the script of the culture wars.

Organised labour and trade unionists, the heroes for Reynolds and Lake, were a driving force behind the White Australia Policy, the racism that they loathe. Weary Dunlop the famous surgeon and survivor of the Japanese slave camps, became a post-war champion of Australian-Japanese reconciliation. Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating sat at the feet of the volcanic anticapitalist Jack Lang who defaulted on British loans during the Depression. The same Keating became the friend of international finance, deregulated the banks, privatised services and embraced the market.

None of this contradiction is welcome in the warring camps of the History Wars, who want history without irony.

As it happens, I agree with Reynolds and Lake on some things. The Howard government did cheapen the Anzac tradition by overtly and crassly identifying itself with it, and it did articulate a militarised view of Australia while peddling its own form of political correctness with the illiberal charge that others were ‘unAustralian.’ And in a sense, Australia’s national identity did not simply spring out of the Gallipoli campaign. If anything, the realisation of an Australian national consciousness happened more sharply in World War Two, when the competing demands of the British Empire and the Australian government in different theatres of war made it clear that our national interests could be antagonistic to London’s.

But it is not illiberal or reactionary to show an annual and dignified gratitude to the dead, even if we don’t still agree with all their causes and even if they thought differently to us. It is one of the bonds of our citizenship. No doubt our pantheons should be full of other nationbuilders too – teachers, pioneers, Aborigines, preachers, captains of industry, cricketers and suffragettes. As long as we see them not as angels or demons, but as the messy humans they were.

Meanwhile, it isn’t wise to reduce history to a pageant of the saved and the damned, or to use it as a mirror for political self-congratulation. It is not Anzac we should leave behind, but the battle cries of the culture warriors.

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