25 Jan 2013

History Isn't A Balance Sheet

By Sarah Burnside
Australia Day or Invasion Day? Black armband or white blindfold? Guilt or denial? Simplifying our history doesn't help us deal with the unpalatable truths of colonisation, writes Sarah Burnside
As Australia Day approaches, some old questions resurface about the nature of our national history.

No country with self-respecting historians can boast a simple national history replete with goodies (us) and baddies (them). It's particularly difficult in societies that have suffered civil wars or occupations, as well as in post-colonial countries. With respect to the latter, it is hard to satisfy the desire for a good news story of the past in the face of the obvious fact that the nation and its wealth have been founded on dispossession.

In an Australian context, too often during the "History Wars" and since, positions have been reduced to a simplistic dichotomy: apparently one can either wear a "black armband" and reduce our history to a litany of evils, or don a "white blindfold" and imagine our past to have been a haven of egalitarianism and enlightenment. The reality is more complicated — our shared past has instances of tremendous achievement as well as deep shame.

Faced with this mixture, there is a temptation to find a balance. As former Prime Minister John Howard famously stated in 1996:

"I profoundly reject the black armband view of Australian history. I believe the balance sheet of Australian history is a very generous and benign one. I believe that, like any other nation, we have black marks upon our history but amongst the nations of the world we have a remarkably positive history."

Here, the metaphor of the balance sheet was used to suggest that the past can be added up, and its rights and wrongs calculated and resolved.

Recent years have seen a great deal of discussion about the concept of balance in journalism and, in particular, whether the desire for such equilibrium (resulting in what is often known as he-said-she-said journalism) can lead to misleading reporting of issues on which the two sides are emphatically not equal — such as debates about the existence of climate change or the merits of President Barack Obama's birth certificate.

The idea of balance is sometimes also applied to history, as in Howard's quotation above, and in his successor Kevin Rudd's 2009 declaration that it was time to "leave behind ... the polarisation that began to infect every discussion of our nation's past".

For Robert Manne, Rudd's statement appealed to the "lazy but very common belief that in any intellectual dispute truth is to be discovered somewhere between the extremes". 

This is not to argue that we cannot present both laudatory and negative aspects of our past — all good history textbooks will do so. Where the idea of balance becomes problematic is in the desire to smooth over unpalatable truths and to answer the nagging yet vacuous question of whether we are a good or a bad country.

In his 1976 book The Process of Economic Development in Australia, economic historian William Angus Sinclair wrote:

"There is little to be said for attempting to pass some sort of judgment on whether the economic development of Australia is a matter for approval or disapproval. The tapping of Australia's natural resources has meant the virtual destruction of one society in existence before settlement began, and the creation of a new one consistent with the aspirations of a group of white people ...

There is no calculus which permits the demoralisation of the black inhabitants of Australia to be set off against the opportunities for betterment which Australian economic development gave to many whites."

The language used by Sinclair would not be employed today — there is now awareness that there are many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies, rather than one homogenous one, and that to speak of their destruction silences their survival. Sinclair was correct, though, to note the folly of attempting to balance the creation of a new society with the demoralisation of the continent's prior owners.

Some things simply cannot be measured, notwithstanding the distress such unquantifiability might cause economists and other lovers of spreadsheets and graphs. There is both good and bad in our national history, and it is not as simple as adding these elements up, dividing them by two and then deciding to feel good about ourselves.

Similar issues are ventilated in the United Kingdom. As British academic David Anderson wrote recently:

"[s]quaring up to the seamier side of our empire is long overdue. However benevolent empires aim to be, they are invariably built on political, economic and military domination. Empires are by their very nature exploitative, the authority of imperial rule often established and sustained through violence and coercion. In all of this, Britain's empire was no different than any other."

Such conclusions are often not palatable; activist and blogger Richard Seymour argues that the "invariant tone" of the nationalist revival of the 1990s and 2000s in Britain, and of "the empire peddling that came with it" was: "yes, there is much to regret, but overall we should be proud of Britain's past and awed by its imperial accomplishments".

There were benefits as well as losses inherent in imperialism; in his recent book Why Marx Was Right, English academic Terry Eagleton asks rhetorically: "How could such a formidably complex phenomenon as colonialism, stretching out as it did over regions and centuries, have produced not a single positive effect?"

The good does not erase the bad, however, and would be idle to attempt to measure whether they balance, canceling each other out. In particular, it would also be intellectually dishonest for those who have gained immeasurably from colonialism purporting to assess, in a dispassionate fashion, whether it was worth it.

Concepts like recognition can be fairly empty, as when state and federal governments earnestly acknowledge traditional owners at public events, while tirelessly opposing their native title claims in the courts. Acknowledging the complexity of the past does not necessarily require some sort of awkward tokenism or regretful footnote, though.

It could be something wider and deeper, something more akin to Paul Keating's statement in the Redfern Speech that "there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include indigenous Australians ... There is everything to gain".

Guilt, Keating noted, "is not a very constructive emotion". Neither is denial. In Ann Hunter's recent book A Different Kind of "Subject", she quoted one Robert Lyon calling on his fellow colonists, in what was to become the state of Western Australia, to "Reflect you have seized upon a land that is not yours". Lyon spoke as long ago as 1831, but the truth he told and its ongoing ramifications still make many non-Indigenous Australians uneasy today.

Our history isn't a simple or a comfortable one, but we're hardly alone there. We need to be able to look at its complexities together without reflexively grasping for a positive every time we encounter a negative, or seeking a set of scales capable of weighing us as a country.

Manne suggests that the History Wars will be over only when "the overwhelming majority of Australians no longer flinch from the uncomfortable truths about their nation's history". We're not there yet, but each new year offers us the chance to get a bit closer.

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jackal01
Posted Friday, January 25, 2013 - 20:42

Human stupidity and debauchery is as old as man.

However when sitting in judgement of others and killing 20 million because they apparently killed six million and we then find out that it was all about human greed rather then justice for all.

I think you need to ask what value history.

There is nothing more stupid then a man sending his children or allowing his children to go to war 15 times in 143 years to slaughter for economic gain only to find that you have lost more then you would have ever gained.

We wiped out most of our Gene Pool so that 4% of the nation could be the 3rd richest Landed Gentry in the world and control 85% of the Nations Wealth and now after all that slaughter we find that the rich have gotten richer and the poor poorer and that we subsidised that human filth for another 30 years until they could get rid of their useless land, to some other idiot.

Now thats stupid with a Capital S.

90% of our wars to be bullies and help England to rape and pillage, what a wank. If we had not gone around and celebtated that stupidity as wars for freedom and demoracy it would have been different. The reality is we are the laughing stock of the world. Its time we grew up and stopped playing with it in Public.

We went to make others richer and now we beat solo Mothers over the head, because Politicians handed out 5000 dollars so people would create more consumers to boost consumerism so that the 4% can get even richer. So what was it all about us, or the few, so whats with the lies.

History wars all about protecting our ego's or their debauchery from being revealed.

Shy did our German Queen reveal that she was Jewish.
Its better to be a Traitor to your people because of a cause rather then because you were just greedy.

Why do the Royals go back as far as king Arthur and then GOD? They needed religion more then we did and do, religion gave them credibility to lead, to be rich, to kill.

History! Historians and their History have been cash for comment cows for decades, centuries even. The Aristocracy and its investment vehicle controls 85% of the worlds food, why, without food we are defenceless, nothing but animals in a zoo a zoo our forefathers helped to create. So, Good luck you dummies. Time will tell. Hope I'm wrong!

Jungarrayi
Posted Tuesday, January 29, 2013 - 17:25

Jungarrayi
A good article covering all angles: guilt, denial, history etc. but again frustrating for us out here at the Front.
The 45th. anniversary of the walk-off, the 20th. anniversary of Mabo, the Apology, the walk across the bridge, the Redfern speech, Native Title, the history wars etc. are all discussed in this and other articles as if it is all in the past, a past with which we have to come to terms.
No more should a German born in 1980 feel guilty about the Holocaust than a white-Australian born in 1980 feel guilty about the policies of a century ago. But there is no excuse to deny current injustices.
The land-grab continues, the few remaining strong Aboriginal languages are under assault, Customary Law in the NT has been suspended, a new gaol is being built as the others are overflowing, mostly with Aboriginal young men, increasingly ownership of communities is being wrested from remote Aborigines whose right to self-determination (under the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that Australia has endorsed but fails to comply with) is being denied them, all under the guise of such euphemisms as "Stronger Futures" "Closing the Gap" "protecting the children".
The destruction of a society is a form of child abuse in my opinion.
Colonialism and assimilation continues apace, all under what John Pilger so aptly called 'The Great Australian Silence"
No, we shouldn’t feel guilty of past wrongs, only acknowledge them. However we cannot dodge the guilt of current injustices. Australia the fair country we are not.

jackal01
Posted Tuesday, January 29, 2013 - 21:48

Jungarrayi

Agreed, Its the indiginous peoples land and whats in it that pays the Taxes to keep everyone else and they know it, most whites know it.

Thats why they told the white fellow that we were tax payers, when we are not, the tax payers don't like bludgers, people accuse Indiginous people of being bludgers so the vilification of the people continues. Yet its all a lie, if it wasn't for this Land none of us whity's would be alive, we are the bludgers and we have given the Indiginous people back almost nothing, while we had the third richest landed gentry in the world who controlled 85$ of this Nations wealth and still do, yet the wealth comes from this Land, that once belonged to others.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. DrGideonPolya
Posted Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 10:00

History ignored yields history repeated. Silence kills and silence is complicity. Thus Australia has had an appalling history involving participationis some 2 dozen genocidal atrocities of which half a dozen are ongoing (for details see "Australia's secret genocide history", AboriginalGenocide : https://sites.google.com/site/aboriginalgenocide/australia-s-secret-geno... , "Australian Anzac & Armenian Genocide. Australia's secret genocide history", MWC News: http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/10256-australian-anzac-a-armenian-geno... ) Yet these atrocities are whitewashed from history even as they are occurring by generation after generation of cowardly, racist, lying Mainstream journalists, editors, publishers, politicians and academics - and Australian-complicit genocidal atrocities continue .

By way of example, on On 29 January 2013 The Age published an article entitled “Teacher row delays new curriculum”: http://www.theage.com.au/national/education/teacher-row-delays-new-curri... . I submitted the following comments (and a revised version) but The Age censored both, evidently regarding them as containing things that its readers should not read, know about or think about:

CENSORED COMMENT: " Australian teachers are very badly treated these days. While Vietnam has a Teacher's Day to honor teachers (I know because a brilliant former Vietnamese student sent me a wonderful letter on that occasion), the short-term contract employment of young Australian teachers means that they are excluded home loans.

The National Curriculum was a bad idea in the sense that any falsehood or other malinstruction would violate ALL children nation-wide. The National History Curriculum is highly flawed, involving bottom-of-the-barrel holocaust-denial and genocide-denial that you would get from reading the Murdoch media and numerous Mainstream historians.

Thus, for example, the Modern History section mentions the WW2 Jewish Holocaust ("the Holocaust" to the National Curriculum; 5-6 million killed) but apparently ignores the WW2 European Holocaust of which it was a part (30 million Slavs, Jews and Gypsies killed), the WW2 Chinese Holocaust (35 million killed, the carnage helped by iron from Australia c/- "Pig Iron" Bob Menzies) and the 1942-1945 Bengali Holocaust (6-7 million Indians deliberately starved to death by the British with Australia complicit by withholding wheat from its huge grain stocks from starving India) (read my avoidable mortality-related, neolithic-to-2007 history of EVERY country in the world and entitled "Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950", now available for free perusal on the web)." END COMMENT.

The link to my book of world history reporting huge events that that the Neocon American and Zionist Imperialist-beholden, endlessly lying One Percenters ensure that Australian children and adults are not allowed to know about is: http://globalbodycount.blogspot.com.au/ . See also "Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History", now also available for free perusal on the web: http://janeaustenand.blogspot.com.au/ .

For just a glimpse of this HUGE problem of lying, holocaust denial, genocide denial, holocaust ignoring and genocide ignoring in look-the-other-way Australia see also “Censorship by ABC Late Night Live”: https://sites.google.com/site/censorshipbyabclatenightlive/ ; “Censorship by The Conversation”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/censorship-by ; "Mainstream media lying": https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammedialying/ ; and "Censorship by The Age": https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/censorship-by-th... .

Peace is the only way but Silence kills and Silence is complicity.

Bazzio101
Posted Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 12:56

The carry on about history is continuation of John Howard's manipulative diversion from this basic tenet ~
The 1st Nation People in the USA own the tax from legal gambling.
The 1st Nation People in New Zealand own & lease out tourist attractions and have The Treaty of Waitangi.

1st Nation People in Australia ~ nothing;
but should own a bloody good part of any Resource Tax.

Question Authority

Kevin Charles H...
Posted Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 20:00

Dr Gideon Polya:

telling analysis as usual.... supported by facts.

stonebill
Posted Friday, November 1, 2013 - 21:39

I am agree with the John Howard. History does not have any balance sheet. You can not make it equall. Like they way you maintain the account of the company trendy dresses online shopping. which is selling the best pakistani bridal dresses, trendy clothing and new pakistani dresses in America and Europe and rest of the world.

Erabir
Posted Tuesday, November 26, 2013 - 06:35

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