ADELAIDE - I am a severe critic of ‘wokeness’ in its latest manifestation. Beginning its life to signify awareness of social and racial injustice, it has since been weaponised as a term of abuse.
These days it refers to people who have an absurd world view and who ostentatiously hate anyone who disagrees with them. I suppose we needed a word for that, and that’s the meaning I give to it here.
Unfortunately, we see ‘wokeness’ flourishing in the current debate about Australian history and, in particular, the horrendous treatment of its Indigenous people.
In this debate, the ‘woke’ seem incapable of accepting that history is a complex and difficult subject capable of differing interpretations depending upon, amongst other things, the biases of the observer.
Also, the ‘woke’ seem rigid and doctrinaire in their outlook, with little tolerance for ambiguity or doubt about their ideas. Their intolerance of dissent is especially repellent and strongly reflective of the authoritarian mindset that they ostensibly abhor.
In Australia, there is no doubt whatsoever that the original inhabitants of this land were variously harassed, dispossessed and, all too often, murdered during the course of what was manifestly a violent settlement by British colonisers and their descendants.
This is a fact, and only a point of historic contention amongst people with little knowledge of Australian history or with the intent to obscure or falsify this history.
There was certainly a conspiracy of silence amongst the early settlers who, even if they did not agree with the atrocities committed, were unwilling to report their suspicions to the authorities.
The authorities almost certainly knew what was occurring but did nothing to stop it.
These are facts, not matters of contention except amongst those people whose idea of modern Australia (that is, the Australia that developed after 1788) is grounded in the part truths and outright mythology that most of us were taught at school.
At university, I studied both politics and history. I soon realised they were such closely related subjects as to be effectively indistinguishable.
The only difference really was that politics focused mainly upon contemporary issues while history allowed itself the luxury of a long-term view.
Unhappily, it is for this reason - history telling the story of past deeds which are inaccessible but still affect us today - that it can easily become a political battleground, where ideology and mythology collide with the facts.
These days we have ‘alternative facts’ or what I think of as ‘Joseph Goebbel facts’. These are manufactured untruths presented as facts to misinform or indoctrinate the population for political purposes.
We also see a great deal of denial about history, perhaps epitomised by the dogged refusal of modern Turkey to admit the reality of the Armenian genocide which it perpetrated, or Japan’s continuing inability to admit to the reality of the Rape of Nanking or the culpability of its military caste for so many atrocities during World War II.
Japan instead prefers to flaunt its victimhood as the only country to have endured nuclear bombardment and so claim the high moral ground in remembering the war it actually initiated.
In fairness to the aforementioned, there are many other examples I could point to where a carefully constructed national mythology cannot endure close scrutiny because it is founded upon lies and distortions. History is full of inconvenient truths.
Australia is thus in good (or perhaps dubious) company in its selective remembering of its history and, for some at least, its denial of the truth about the calculated destruction of Aboriginal peoples and their cultures.
Oscar Wilde said “the truth is seldom pure and never simple” and those of us who study history ought to remember this particular piece of wisdom.
In relation to Stan Grant’s article, ‘We choose our history to suit who we are’, he is, I think, striving to find a path to some sort of middle ground in our ongoing history wars.
It seems to me this is possible if, in the first instance, those who purport to love our country can bring themselves to unflinchingly stare at the ugly truths that lurk in our past.
The good is still there but its light must be allowed to illuminate the shadows too.
Sadly, the modern history warriors of the political right are mostly neither historians nor well-disposed to admit that Australia is, in fact, not an especially ‘great’ country.
It has many admirable achievements to its name but far too many much less admirable or even thoroughly repellent aspects of its history to justify the claim to the greatness they seem to desperately want it to be accorded.
These days we are led mainly by political mediocrities, especially in the federal government ranks, whose views of history are unsophisticated at best or simply based upon ignorance and prejudice at worst.
The federal opposition is hardly better, being so timid in its utterances upon any potentially contentious matter, such as our history, that it is effectively invisible.
So, here we are again: it is Groundhog Day in Australia when it comes to owning our historic wrongs in relation to the Aboriginal peoples.
Those who profess to be ‘woke’ loudly proclaim the evils of the past and, some at least, demand massive financial recompense as the price of reconciliation.
Meanwhile, those who claim to be proud patriots decry such claims as self-serving or exaggerations or simply false.
No attempt to reconcile these diametrically opposed positions is likely to succeed anytime soon because their respective ideologies cannot endure the idea that the truth is, in fact, a murky blend of both supposed ‘truths’.