Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The History Wars

The Prime Minister has recently called for a renewal of history teaching in Australian secondary schools, with the suggestion of making history a compulsory subject in all schools. Mr. Howard is concerned about how we are to preserve, in an increasingly pluralistic society, a sense of Australian national identity, without an overarching and coherent narrative. “I do not believe,” he said, “that you can have any sensible understanding and, therefore, any sensible debate about different opinions of Australian history unless you have some narrative and method in the comprehension and understanding of history. How you can teach issues and study moods and fashions in history, rather than comprehend and teach the narrative, has always escaped me.” (“Summit divides over compulsory history,” The Age 17.08.06)

Just last week a summit of historians, politicians, and educators met in Canberra to discuss the Prime Minister’s proposal. This seems like a welcome trend but there are some who are concerned about the possible “politicization” of history that may result from such an approach. If Australia is to have an “official” history, if the Prime Minister is to appoint the historians who write the curriculum, if government funding is to be directed to some projects and not others, then whose version of history will be sanctioned? Already the opposition Labor Party is concerned that the government wants to rewrite history to reflect its own conservative world-view. Opposition education spokeswoman Jenny Macklin said in The Age “The teaching of history is very important in our schools but the last thing we want is John Howard pushing his ideology down the throats of our children.”

Is this just the opening round in the next campaign of the “history wars”? Debates about the nature of the past are hugely significant in shaping the identity of any people and in charting a way forward into the future. The heart of the argument can be traced back to a phrase coined by Geoffrey Blainey (left) in his Latham Lecture of 1993 and then subsequently picked up by John Howard when he won government in March 1996. Blainey referred to the pessimistic view of Australian history as “black-armband history.” Earlier generations had held a very positive “three cheers for the British and their great accomplishments” kind of history. This at least was the history I was taught at school. There was lots of flag raising, and military uniforms, with the Aborigines somewhere in the background looking on from behind trees, waiting to perform cultural ceremonies to the delight of their newly arrived guests. No blood was spilt (or very little) in the history I learned at school. Words like “genocide” or “massacre” were never used. Blainey held that in reaction to this overly rosy view the pendulum had swung too far the other way and on overly pessimistic view had emerged resulting in an equal but opposite historical jaundice. (It should be noted that black armbands were used in the Aboriginal protest movement in the 1970s, before Blainey coined the term, as a symbol of Aboriginal dispossession.)

The person most responsible for this “black armband view” of Australian History, according to Blainey, was Manning Clark (above), the man usually seen as the founder of the approach to Australian History as Australian, rather than as an episode in British history. Blainey maintained that a “guilt industry” had emerged from Clark’s work outsides of the historical profession – in the ABC, in the Australian Labor Party, in educational institutions, and in the High Court. Too much emphasis was being placed, it was said, on the dispossession of the Aborigines, and on the destructive impact on the environment of European civilization. White Australians were racist, sexist, militarist, and exploitative and they needed to make reparations. John Howard, picking up on Blainey’s criticisms came into office in 1996 asserting that “the balance sheet of Australian history is a generous and benign one.” This appealed to an Australian sense of patriotism and national pride and no doubt contributed to a Liberal victory. [Mark McKenna, “Black-armband history,” in Graeme Davison, John Hirst, and Stuart Macintyre, eds. The Oxford Companion to Australian History (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001), 73.]

More recently controversy has broken out over the nature of the dispossession of the Aborigines in Tasmania. In 2002 Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History made the claim that the “genocide” of Tasmanian Aborigines was a myth and that there had been no widespread massacres of Aboriginal people during the period of white settlement there. He argued that the Aborigines had no sense of ownership of land; such an idea was not part of their mental universe so they could not be said to have had their land stolen from them. The land was “terra nullius” – an empty land, belonging to no one and so legitimately appropriated by the British crown.

Windschuttle’s book created a storm of controversy and seasoned historians of Aboriginal and settler relations on the frontier, such as Henry Reynolds, clashed head on with Windschuttle’s hypothesis, as well as with his historical method and accuracy. Winschuttle became something of a cause celebre among right wing conservatives and The Australian ran a series of pro- and anti-Windschuttle pieces that kept the debate in the national consciousness for quite a while. For its own part The Australian tended to editorialize in favour of Windschuttle and he became something of a figurehead for those who opposed the “black-armband” approach to history. Professor Robert Manne, one of Australia’s leading public intellectuals, has lamented the way that “so many prominent Australian conservatives have been so easily misled by so ignorant, so polemical and so pitiless a book.” [Robert Manne, ed. Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History (Melbourne: Black Inc. Agenda, 2003), 11.

The latest move from the Prime Minister continues to stir the pot on our national history. So here we are in Australian in 2006 certain that history matters, and that the generally understood narrative of a nation does indeed affect national identity, politics, education, and a good deal more.

[If you liked this post you might also enjoy reading the following previous posts - Trying to Speak Good Christian in Canberra, Bring the Troops Home, "Wiping Out" the Aborigines, The Proposition and Race Riots in Cronulla.]

Friday, August 18, 2006

Back to the 80s

My daughter Ellen (on the left in the photo at right) starred in her school production Back to the 80s Thursday through Saturday of last week. We went twice. She did such a great job. Maybe I'm biased. No, I am biased, I'm her dad, but she really shone. She was an acting, singing, dancing, all star sensation and we are so proud of her. All those daggy 80s songs were kind of cool too. Here are some photos.

One of the wild and wacky cast members!

"Cory" dreams of better days.

The "male" (?) teacher of the production (Ellen goes to a girls school).

Cory and his daggy friends.

These guys got married in the end.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

"The Most Trusted Name in Fake News"

Hands down the best thing on television at the moment is The Daily Show. Jon Stewart is a comic genius who is also an intellectual and let me tell you those two things are not often found in the same person. Time magazine recently voted him one of the 100 most influential people of 2005. If you don't have cable and don't get to see it most nights on 9.30 on the Comedy Channel, never fear, The Daily Show with John Stewart: Global Edition is back on SBS Thursdays at 10pm. There is an interesting review of the show by Kenneth Nguyen in today's Age. The caption in the photo on the online version is all wrong though because, as the article itself makes clear, Stewart is anything but postmodern. Rather he is more often than not pointing out how the postmodern emperor has no clothes. The Fox Network prides itself on informing the public with unbiased reporting ("no spin zone" - what a joke!). But one commentator says we should watch the Daily Show becuase "it's even better than being informed"! Stewart is "the most trusted name in fake news." So until the ABC resurrects Shaun Micalleff from the dead make mine Jon Stewart!

An Argument for the Education of Clergy

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Darfur Genocide

I am posting these eloquent words from one of my students, Megan Orrin, echoing her concerns and joining with those voices who are asking the media to give urgent attention to this crisis. I have forwarded this letter, as an expression of shared concerns to various media outlets and encourage any of the visitors to my blog to do the same. You can find out more here and here.

"Right now a campaign of rape, slaughter and displacement is currently being carried out in the western region of Sudan, the largest country in Africa. Government-supported troops have displaced 2.5 million people in the past two years, hundreds of thousands have died due to attacks, disease and starvation, and it is estimated that 500 men, women and children continue to die every day.

We must put pressure on our national leaders to take immediate action. President Bush and the United States Congress have recognized the situation in Darfur as "genocide," but it will take much more than words to end the violence and suffering in Darfur. In fact this recognition imposes a legal obligation, let alone the inherent moral obligation, upon governments to take action to stop the genocide. If our leaders made Darfur a priority, hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved.

We don't do anything because we don't know anything. I am writing to you to beg you to look into this situation. We need media coverage to educate our citizens about this situation. We need to care and get our goverment to see that we care so that action can be taken to help these people escape their situation.

This is what Wikipedia has to say about the Darfur conflict:
The Darfur conflict is an ongoing conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan, mainly between the Janjaweed, a militia group recruited from local Baggara tribes, and the non-Baggara peoples (mostly tribes of small farmers) of the region. The Sudanese government, while publicly denying that it supported the Janjaweed, provided arms and assistance and has participated in joint attacks with the group. The conflict began in February 2003. Estimates of deaths in the conflict have ranged from 50,000 (World Health Organization, September 2004) to 450,000 (Dr. Eric Reeves, 28 April 2006). Most NGOs use 400,000, a figure from the Coalition for International Justice. The conflict has been described by mass media as "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide"; the Bush Administration of the United States and the U.S. Congress have declared it to be genocide, though the United Nations has declined to do so.

President Bush once wrote in the margins of a report on the Rwandan genocide, "Not on my watch.", yet it is happening again! Last time we just sat back and watched, let's not to it again! Please help me in calling for immediate attention to Darfur and more robust action on behalf of governments to support security efforts in the region. Please help get this message out!"

Some media you can alert:,

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Trying to Speak Good Christian in Canberra

I attended the National Forum on Australia's Christian Heritage at Parliament House, Canberra on Monday and Tuesday. I was hoping it would not be a flag waving "let's take the nation for Jesus!" type of exercise and I'm glad to say it wasn't. Stuart Piggin, the principal organiser, made a helpful distinction between Australia as a "Christian nation" which it certainly is not, and Australia as a "Christianised" nation, which is just as certainly is. There was a wide cross section of views represented, with speakers and delegates drawn from across the denominational and theological spectrum and politicians from both the left and the right. Kevin Rudd, Labor Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs spoke about the Christian origins of the Australian Labor Party and spoke eloquently of the need for Christians to play their part in a pluralist society. The event confirmed my suspicions that recent concerns about an American-style take over by the "Religious Right" in Australia are often superficial and not suitably nuanced about the nature of "Christian Australia." (Michael Ashby's review of Dennis Altman's essayThe 51st State in the latest Eureka Street is worth a look). The fact is that Christian Australia is not exclusivley "right wing" nor even exclusively "evangelical." Though there were occasional cringe-worthy moments - such as when the photographer Ken Duncan criticised Aboriginal land rights as creating an apartheid system (!)- most speakers were moderate voices from a broad range of Christian traditions calling for the importance of celebrating and remembering Australia's Christian past and present.

Public discourse is an interesting thing to observe and learning how to speak "Christianly" in public is a skill in all too short supply. Robert Jenson says that “theology is the thinking internal to the task of speaking the Gospel" (Systematic Theology I:5), which is another way of saying we should think before we speak. Theology is always an act of interpretation because it hears the old word of the Gospel and it speaks that word afresh in a new context. We have heard the Gospel spoken to us; we must now ask what we should say and do so that the Gospel may be spoken again. The logical form of theology includes such statements as “To be speaking the Gospel say x rather than y.” Paul says “To be saying the Gospel say “Jesus is Lord” rather than “Jesus is cursed.” The church exerts her teaching authority when she says, “If you claim to speak for this community say ‘the eternal Son of God was made flesh in Jesus Christ,’ rather than ‘Jesus was only a Galilean peasant rabbi.’” It is the church’s dogmatic task to determine which statements about God speak the Gospel and which do not. The church is that community “which speaks Christianese” and a sentence like “Jesus is Lord” is a properly made sentence according to the grammar of orthodoxy. “God helps those who help themselves” is not very good Christian. "I can do nothing without God’s help” is better. Dogmatic (as distinct from doctrinal) statements emerge once the church has said “To be speaking the Gospel we must henceforth say ‘x’ rather than that other possibility ‘y’,” there can be no going back. Such a dogmatic choice irrevocably determines the future of the church. I remember Jim Ridgway when I took Systematic Theology as an undergraduate student saying, “You can say you don’t believe in the Trinity if you want to, so long as you realise that when you say that you place yourself outside of the church.”

During the Forum, Bronwyn Bishop, Federal Member for Mackellar, was responding to a paper given by Professor Robert Linder, who had given an address in which he had referred to an early Australian Trade Union leader as a Christian Socialist. This was too much for Ms. Bishop who insisted in her reply that there was no such thing as Christian Socialism. A socialist could be a Christian but the word “socialist” could never be used as an adjective to modify the noun “Christian.” The reason she gave for this was that the focus on Christianity is on the needs of the individual rather than on the needs of the group. Now this seemed to me and to many others not to be speaking very good Christian at all. She had also confidently asserted, in challenging religious pluralism, “My Bible says that Jesus said ‘I am the Way the Truth and the Light.’” [rather than the “Life.”) Another speaker had urged us never to forget “Sampson and his donkey” (!) These are forgivable errors. They are either slips of the tongue or minor misquotes. But to understand Christianity as entirely about the needs of individuals and to have therefore little to say about social needs or collective concerns seems to me to be speaking very bad Christian indeed. At least one other delegate must have felt the same as he called out “The Honourable Member’s time has elapsed!” This was the only genuinely discourteous, even if perceptive, moment at the forum.

Parliament resumed the day after the Forum and Mr. Howard now finds himself embattled with even his own coalition back benchers who have rejected his proposed "Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill" as draconian and regressive and seem likely to vote against the Bill with the Opposition. It seeks to amend the Migration Act of 1958 by expanding the offshore processing regime so that all unauthorised arrivals, including mainland arrivals, are processed offshore in detention centres. This will inevitably mean children in jails in Nauru. Do we really want to be doing that? Liberal MP Petro Georgiou in The Age today called it "the most profoundly disturbing piece of legislation I have encountered since becoming a member of parliament." To privilege border protection over the Christian grace of hospitality seems patently wrong to me. We cannot say to refugees, "You are not welcome here and if you come here we will jail you and your children" and be speaking good Christian.


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