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Good news is no news for history’s hand-wringers

Tuesday, 05 September 2017

Good news is no news for history’s hand-wringers
Sydneysiders walk past a statue of Captain James Cook stands in Hyde Park. Picture: AFP

Nick Cater writes in The Australian:

What conclusions should we draw from the latest dispiriting skirmish in the history wars?

It began with a fanciful attempt to compare Captain James Cook with two American Civil War generals from the slave lands and ended with the desecration of Cook’s statue, an act that was roundly condemned by all, including Stan Grant, who started the hoo-ha in the first place.

The first thing to note, if we did not know it already, is that the US culture wars sit awkwardly on the Australian landscape. The second is that Bill Shorten has a Keatingesque habit of overreaching in support of progressive causes. His implicit censuring of an 18th-century explorer, like his backing for an indigenous treaty, was a premature disgorgement of hubris from an Opposition Leader with a net satisfaction rate of minus 20 per cent.

Lastly, Australia’s foundational narrative is in far less trouble than we might be tempted to believe. Grant’s objection to the suggestion that Cook had “discovered” Australia found little support outside the hand-wringers. Yesterday’s Newspoll in The Australian found only 32 per cent agreed with Shorten that statues should be changed.

Cook’s reputation survived intact, which is reassuring on the eve of the 250th anniversary of the departure of his expedition. Cook was not a conquistador, crusader or evangelist. He was the leader of a scientific expedition at a time when European thought was turning away from superstition ­towards reason.

As the son of a farm labourer who became a sea captain, he embodied the spirit of egalitarianism. He approached the ­native inhabitants respectfully believing, like those who followed, that the old and new worlds could strike a deal: land, seemingly in abundance, in return for the technological wonders of the 18th century.

Progressive intellectuals would prefer that Australia had a bleaker past, and less exemplary founders, the better to highlight their own shining moral virtue and to justify their wish to tear down inherited institutions.

The progressive narrative requires a dark beginning, anxious present and a gleaming future.

Christian Smith in Moral, ­Believing Animals, tells it this way: “Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive … But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.”

Sadly, the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression are still with us, the story goes. The struggle for the good ­society must go on.

To tell the story of Australian settlement this way, deviant behaviour is portrayed as normal. By focusing on the hardships of transportation and the harsh treatment of re-offenders, Australia is portrayed as the fatal shore rather than the land of redemption.

Uplifting stories of convicts made good and the absence of slavery are naturally overlooked. So, too, is the extraordinary rate of technological, economic and ­social progress. Within a century of settlement, Australia was one of the most egalitarian places on earth.

Newspaper accounts of the unveiling of Cook’s now contentious statue in Sydney in February 1879 offer a glimpse of this happy land. “Perhaps in no other country, and under no other circumstance would there be witness to the spectacle of religious societies of ­opposite principles — Orange and Catholic — marching together in the same procession and greeting each other with honest, hearty cheers,” the Evening News reported.

The monument had been erected not by the government but by a private committee, governor Hercules Robinson noted in his speech.

“When a strong sense of public duty, respect for the constituted authorities and for the law, and a high standard of political right and wrong prevail in a nation, even very defective institutions will produce the fruits of good government,” Robinson said.

“It becomes, therefore, of the utmost importance that the rising generation here should be brought up to admire and imitate true nobility of character. It would be impossible to set before them as an example a higher human standard than that of the earnest, modest, brave, self-denying, just, humane, and God-fearing man to whose memory a statue is about to be ­unveiled.”

Nothing in the newspapers suggests that this was a land of colonial oppression. On the contrary; Robinson’s speech foreshadows universal suffrage, Federation and independence, references that evoke cheers from the crowd. He urges Australians to follow Cook’s example “by adopting the same beneficent rule of conduct” towards native Australians “which is always, I fear, less easy to practice than to preach”.

The enlightened origins of Australian settlement that stem from the liberal movement that led to the great social reforms in Britain in the 18th century are seldom recognised by the statue-knockers.

In a dismally misinformed piece of online “analysis” for the ABC, Grant claims that British settlement in Australia can be traced by to a 1452 decree from Pope Nicholas V that “sanctioned the conquest, colonisation and ­exploitation of all non-Christian peoples”.

“The law of whiteness,” explains Grant, meant “that anyone who did not worship Jesus Christ was less than human.”

Do not for a moment imagine that Australians are any less prejudiced today.

“There is a history in Australia of not wanting to talk about the darker parts of our shared past,” Grant declares. “It is written in our DNA, it is buried in the soil.`

“That is the problem with Australia, a land of gestures and tokens with no substantial recognition of indigenous peoples and our ­history.”

It is difficult to see how the divisive rhetoric of identity politics assists the cause of reconciliation for which Grant campaigns. Misrepresenting the history of colonisation is a strange way of arriving at the historical “truth” supposedly buried beneath white prejudice.

Blaming contemporary Australians for the sins — real and imagined — of the past is unlikely to persuade them to vote for the constitutional reform Grant desires, let alone a treaty.

The chances of a referendum question being framed, let alone approved, are getting slimmer by the day.

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