Addressing Fake History

Toppled Captain Cook statue

Toppled Captain Cook statue

A recent series of attacks on Australian monuments dedicated to the likes of British seafarer Captain James Cook and early New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie, have been described by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as a “cowardly criminal act”. Going further, Turnbull said

But it is also part of a deeply disturbing and totalitarian campaign to not just challenge our history but to deny it and obliterate it.

This is what Stalin did. When he fell out with his henchmen he didn’t just execute them, they were removed from all official photographs — they became non-persons, banished not just from life’s mortal coil but from memory and history itself.

Whilst the authorship of this website does not condone acts of vandalism, we do take seriously the value of history and its inherent truths. The perversion of history, for either political or social gain is an act that should be universally considered unacceptable. Thus, the following is an examination of the likely motivations that inspired the recent acts of vandalism, as well as the overall validity, or lack thereof of the Prime Minister’s response. We ask, what is the truth and has either side in this argument acted to “deny and obliterate” our history?

To begin with, Malcolm Turnbull’s attempt to compare Josef Stalin’s efforts during the Russian Revolution to the path Australia is now treading, speaks of a clumsily curated view of history.  Two distinct examples were provided, with Turnbull attempting to place the dangers of engineering history via the doctoring of photographs, alongside his distaste for the removal of statues. Whilst the first act was certainly “disturbing” for its denial of history, Turnbull has failed to reconcile the fact that Stalin was denying the truth, whilst in Australia we’re seeing the public act out in an effort to preserve the truth. The statues that were toppled in Stalin’s time were removed not because they were Stalin’s political rivals, but because they represented an oppressive regime. As was the case some 70 years later with the toppling of monuments which had been erected in Stalin’s honour. The editing of photographs and removal of statues are two distinct discussions in Russian political history. Turnbull’s attempt to roll them into one tidy package, simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

Following on from Malcolm Turnbull’s attempt to draw parallels between the toppling of statues in Russia leading into the 1920’s and the efforts being undertaken in Australia, it is worth examining other global examples relating to the removal of historical monuments, both today and throughout the past. Our most recent opportunity for comparison is to look at the events currently unfolding in the United States.

Just as there are challenges in Australian history relating to how two opposing views are considered, there has also been a similar surge in debate and activity in America, regarding its own contentious history. A number of statues which memorialise the efforts of Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War, have either been defaced or torn down. Variously labelled as activists and vandals, the perpetrators and supporters of such acts have stated that the monuments are a reminder of institutional racism, segregation and slavery, which have no place in a forward-thinking democracy.

Revisionism is rife in the United States, just as it is in Australia, as evidenced by the words of President Donald Trump, whose approach finds a kinship to that of Malcom Turnbull, in stating

Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!”

Whilst parallels may be drawn between the American and Australian experiences of racism, there are also significant differences to note. In the United States, the majority of that nation’s monuments to confederate soldiers weren’t erected until many decades after the American Civil War. The peak in their manufacture was in the 1960’s, as a racist act of aggression, in protest against growing support for the US civil rights movement. In contrast, the majority of white Australia’s efforts to memorialise their perspectives and forebears were produced without the slightest consideration for the First Peoples of Australia. However, that is not to say that both experiences don’t speak of endemic racism. The simple act of not taking into consideration Indigenous perspectives is in itself racist.

Inspired by their American counterparts, Australian activists frustrated with a perceived lack of movement relating to the ongoing plight of Aboriginal Australians, have begun to take similar steps. Their actions are set against a debate relating to the validity of January 26 being an appropriate date to mark Australia Day. They point to a continued misrepresentation and marginalisation of Indigenous people in Australia’s history books and media as symptomatic of larger problems of systematic racism, paternalism and communities being denied human rights.

In contrast to Malcolm Turnbull’s stance, the authorship of firmly believes that it is important to “challenge” our views of history. Questioning whether we are right or wrong is never a bad thing. It helps to refine our understanding of the past and reaffirm where we have already done a great job of telling our stories. Sidelining the misrepresentations and half-truths we may have been fed can only benefit us, allowing the public at-large to learn from our past, rather than be confused by it.

Should we tear statues down? If we look to the examples provided by post-Soviet Eastern Europe, post Hussein Iraq, or post NAZI era Germany, we can see clearly that there are valuable examples of where that has indeed been the right thing to do. The glorification of a tyrannical regime, or even the perception of alignment with such a regime’s ideals can be incredibly problematic for a community as they begin the rebuilding process, attempting to find a way forward.

Most non-Indigenous Australians have little to no concept of how their early sea-faring or invasive forebears treated Indigenous people. Governor Lachlan Macquarie, Captain James Cook, Sir. Thomas Mitchell and Angus McMillan are loosely associated with being explorers, heroes and kind-hearted leaders. This however reflects a limited knowledge base, shaped by the failures of the Australian education system, which is paired with a nationalist pride, disinterested in anything that may challenge the status quo. Tearing down a statue of someone the Australian community associates with being a top bloke isn’t going to result in any progress, particularly as the monument will simply be repaired and be met with a greater level of ignorance and resolve.

Few Australians hold an adequate grasp of our history, whether it relates to Indigenous people or otherwise. Until that changes, until our schools offer a comprehensive history which provides more than a brutish serving of Howard government inspired nationalism, we’ll continue to be ignorant, our media will continue to treat us such and we won’t be able to engage in a mature debate, on a matter which we should all be invested in.

What we can do, despite the obstacles that remain, is to do as Stan Grant has suggested and produce updated plaques that address the views of the past and place them in a proper context.  Captain Cook did not discover Australia. Lachlan Macquarie allowed the slaughter of innocent people, including children. Australia was not founded on January 26. We must not run from the truth. We must embrace it. By placing those statues together, in one location, to enforce that context would go a long way to building bridges between not just Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, but between Australians and the truth.

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