Kevin Does History

I HAVE READ and re-read Kevin Rudd’s speech launching the first volume of Thomas Keneally’s History of Australia and I am not impressed. The speech is an odd collage of Kevin’s attempt to be an intellectual interspersed with a folksy populism with the whole stuck together with moral and theological glue that probably comes closest to expressing Rudd’s true feelings on the matter.

John Howard’s speeches on history possessed a simple dignity that expressed his sincere love for Australian history. They were well crafted and clear, and one always knew who John Howard was and for what he stood.

With Rudd, it’s never simple. He wants to be all things to all men. He wants to be the ordinary “bloke”who grew up at Eumundi, attended Nambour High and is now leader of the “people’s party”. At the same time he wants to be recognised as a man who escaped his background and became educated and sophisticated, expressed not least by his capacity to speak Mandarin. And then there is Kevin the Christian, the man with deep and abiding moral beliefs who perhaps knows he should be moderate in expressing them.

It is not to be wondered that his speech reads somewhat strangely, with not a lot holding the various elements together. Kevin pursues a number of agendas.The first is a populist depiction of the history of the Australian people that is almost exuberant in its optimism and hope for the future. Kevin makes a number of attempts to characterise the non-indigenous Australian people; they are “drawn from the dregs of Empire, from successive generations of people liberated from penal servitude; from Irish famine; from persecution and poverty from practically every land”, they are “the castoffs of imperial Britain and Ireland” and “we—this motley collectivity of souls, drawn from all corners of the earth”.

In Rudd’s eyes Australians would appear to be a special people because they are the unwanted of the earth. This would also assume that they have no specific cultural heritage except the one that they have created in this country. Compare such a view with the one put by John Howard in his 2006 Australia Day speech in which he specified the dominant cultural heritage of Australia as comprising “Judeo-Christian ethics, the progressive spirit of the Enlightenment and the institutions and values of British political culture. Its democratic and egalitarian temper also bears the imprint of distinct Irish and non-conformist traditions.”

It is nonsense to argue that Australians are a mere collection of people without tradition, without a past, without heritage. Rudd seems to think they are a tabula rasa.

What makes Rudd’s position even odder is his attempt to re-cast the words of Edmund Burke when he discusses the nature of biography. Rudd says, “Biography is the fulfilment of a duty owed by every generation to those who have gone before us, and able to be claimed against those yet to be born.” I’m not exactly sure what Rudd means. But in the original formulation by Burke it is the contract between past, present and future generations that is stressed. Part of that contract is the preservation of the traditions of one’s ancestors in trust for one’s descendants, and those traditions are not cast off simply because one moves to a new part of the world.

Whether Rudd recognises it or not, there was an orderly transplantation of “Judeo-Christian ethics, the progressive spirit of the Enlightenment and the institutions and values of British political culture” into the Australian environment. These traditions have moulded the public life and institutions of Australian life, including the Labor Party. Australians have never been a mere collection of people, a population of lost souls.

Having got his “motley crew” into the country, Rudd is able to wax lyrical about the great things this collection of disadvantaged outcasts has been able to achieve. Consider the various characterisations that he gives of the Australian story:

Ours is a story of an extraordinary national achievement … A story of things improbable becoming possible, and ultimately through Australian ingenuity, becoming not merely possible but then a reality which is indeed tangible.

It is difficult to discern exactly what this convoluted latter sentence means, but it would seem to be saying that Australians make dreams become a reality. Rudd believes in this “extraordinary national achievement” as something that “we should embrace and celebrate more ourselves”.

It is also interesting that while Rudd refers to Australian national identity, he also uses the more archaic term “national character”, with its implications that Australians are like a single individual. This would fit in nicely with his very odd view that Australians are a collection of rootless individuals who came together in Australia where they seem to have created a dynamic, progressive “character” presumably through an exertion of their collective will. Such a view fits in nicely with an older view that Australians were able to be progressive because they had been liberated from the old world and so carried no baggage with them.

Rudd also describes the story of Australia is a “sprawling, complex and rollicking story”, conjuring up an image of a Hollywood movie with Errol Flynn in the lead role. Part of that “rollicking story” is the tale of Captain Cook’s irritable bowels. Frankly I think there is a certain lack of dignitas in this but it is clearly meant to express Kevin’s populist side and to show he is an ordinary sort of “bloke”, to use one of his favourite populist words.

Kevin realises, however, that he cannot push the optimistic picture of Australian history too far. To do so would threaten his standing with that section of the educated classes that comprise a significant section of the Labor constituency. He has to introduce some negative bits as well. But it is surprising how little of this speech touches on the litany that the Left has used to spell out the sins of Australians over the past twenty-five years. Rather, Rudd lists a series of “challenges” that are to be overcome if Australia is to fulfil its promise. These include reconciliation, intolerance, environmental problems and poverty. He seems to believe that these can be overcome in the same way as Australians have successfully transformed themselves from advocates of the White Australia policy to multiculturalists.

If the Left can be described as secular Calvinists (or Jansenists) calling for an acknowledgment of one’s sins, followed by repentance and reparation so that Australians might enter the socialist millennium, then Rudd remains some sort of liberal Anglican seeking to keep the feuding members of his broad church together in a single communion. He refers to Australians as “brothers and sisters in our common search for a common future”. His cheery Pelagianism, his optimism that Australians can throw off the sins of their fathers by themselves, is summed up in the following sentence: “Time and again, they remind us just how remarkably successful this Australian experiment has been.”

Australians can work together if only they recognise the common goal towards which they are working and reconcile their differences. Kevin does not believe in original sin, nor as the descendant of a convict can he believe in it. Rather he appears to consider that Australia is “a nation that from its beginnings has etched within its soul, in fact within its DNA, an almost inalienable sense of fairness”.

THERE IS SOMETHING rather sobering about the Rudd position on history that takes the debate to a new stage. The history warriors of the Left in Australia have essentially been the intellectual descendants of “King David”, David Syme, perhaps the most under-rated figure in Australian history. Syme was a secular Calvinist who wanted more state intervention in order to restrain the human depravity that he saw all around him in nineteenth-century Victoria. This Protestant moralism was what drove the Melbourne history school, including its Scotch College communists, for a long time in the twentieth century as it introduced its firstyear students into the mysteries of the English Revolution and its leader, Oliver Cromwell.

It was the opponents of this “black armband” view of history who espoused a kinder and more nuanced view of human nature, who refused to see Australians of British origin as being tainted by some sort of secular “original sin”. In a sense, the history wars have revolved around this issue of whether the British colonists in Australia were somehow tainted and in need of scourging and purification.

For Kevin, as for all of us who have some convict ancestry and have not had the benefit of a University of Melbourne education, the tainting of Australians with hereditary sin is a little too close to the bone. We need a gentler view of human nature, and where better to go for such a view than liberal, or Broad Church, Anglicanism.

However, the price that one pays for leaving the harsh rigour of Calvinism for the calmer waters of liberal Anglicanism is a certain loss of intellectual precision. After all it was another secular Calvinist, John Anderson, who restored rigour to the study of philosophy in Australia after it had drifted off into the clouds of liberal idealism. This loss of both rigour and coherence can be seen in the way that Rudd treats the study of history in this speech. We have already noted a certain looseness in Rudd’s use of the English language that makes it sometimes hard to discern exactly what he is attempting to say.

For example, one can find in the speech the statement, “The love for history is, I believe, the handmaiden of country.” I have thought hard about what this means but I still do not have a clue; it is just meaningless sludge. What exactly is “country” and how can “love for history” possibly be the handmaiden of an inanimate object? Possibly Rudd meant to say something to the effect that love of history is the handmaiden of patriotism; that one can only truly love one’s country if one has an appreciation of its history. But in line with much modern expression he has so compressed the prose and the ideas that what emerges is obscure. It was once thought that the benefit of a good education was the capacity to express ideas in a clear and precise fashion, a skill that Mr Rudd, despite his grasp of Mandarin, appears to lack.

UNFORTUNATELY the rest of the speech contains much more in the way of similarly muddled thinking. Part of the muddle derives from Kevin’s desire to achieve reconciliation and to replace intellectual conflict with a sense of common purpose.

For example, Mr Rudd wants to go beyond “the arid intellectual debates of the history wars”. But surely the study of history only moves forward when it engages in intellectual debates, when current interpretations of the evidence are challenged and their inadequacies exposed. Mr Rudd wants to bring the two interpretations, the “Black Armband” and the “Three (or Two) Cheers” together in a sort of love-in. He wants a history that “unapologetically celebrates the good. A history that unapologetically exposes the bad.”

Rather than going beyond this division, Mr Rudd’s approach, based as it is in muddled and fuzzy thinking, indicates that he is intent on entrenching it. He seems to think that historical enquiry consists of a constant cycle of celebration and condemnation. He seems to have some idea that in this way he can reconcile the opposing parties in the interpretation of Australian history so that they recognise what they have in common. The problem is that assigning moral praise and blame is not the purpose of studying history. Historians seek to understand the past, to gain an appreciation of how and why people acted as they did. Historians who begin with moral presuppositions, whose concerns are primarily with contemporary political issues, will invariably fail in their endeavour. They will lack the empathy needed to understand the actions of human beings who were quite different from them.

The division of the past into “good” and “bad” events is a futile activity. Sometimes “bad” things happen through no one’s fault. For example, the British settlers were not responsible for the diseases that they carried with them to Australia that wrought havoc in the indigenous population. Sometimes when people attempt to right wrongs they simply make things worse. John Gascoigne has mused on the fact that the British believed that they were bringing something valuable to Australia in the shape of the advanced enlightened ideas of the age, only to discover that the indigenous people did not really want them.

It is not the job of the historian to right the wrongs of the past. They are not prophets, nor will the “nation” be redeemed if it collectively repents of the actions of a past generation. Responsibility for actions in the past lies with the individuals who made them, not with those living decades or centuries later. Often when one considers the actions of historical figures, one is simply left contemplating the irony of human endeavour and the helplessness of individuals in the face of the forces that they unleash.

THE REDUCTION of historical enquiry to moral instruction is not the only piece of muddled thinking to be found in Mr Rudd’s speech. He claims that “history is the memory of a nation”, that memory “informs and shapes behaviour” and that this “collective memory of the past” is the foundation on which the future is built. But memory is not history. Individuals can often develop false memories, as in the case of those individuals who “remember” going to school with Merle Oberon in Tasmania when, in fact, she grew up in India.

Memory is simply unreliable. The role of the historian is to interrogate the past, to enquire and investigate, to check if the “memory of the nation” is true or false, a reality or a sort of hallucination. Their job is, as far as they can, to establish what actually happened. They will often disagree because they will interpret the available evidence in different ways.

Mr Rudd also seems to be confused in the matter of historical interpretation. Consider the following:

History can never be only a matter of interpretation… But it’s time we called a truce to the history wars between a straight narrative history that brooks no contradictions, and an extreme relativism that is only about interpretation and not about events, is in fact unsustainable … In a liberal democratic society, we can agree that events happened while we agree to differ in how we interpret them.

Taken together these statements are nonsense. History is always about interpretation and part of that interpretation involves debates about what actually happened. Narratives do not make themselves, nor are they set in stone as if they were an official government document.

Two issues are involved. The first involves whether particular events ever actually occurred. For example, there is a best-seller on the history shelves of most bookshops, 1421, in which Gavin Menzies claims that the Chinese discovered Australia well before Captain Cook. When the Chinese president visited Australia in 2003 he informed the Australian parliament of this “fact”. However, most professional historians, even in China, regard Menzies’s claims as nonsense. But to prove their point they have to provide an interpretation of the evidence regarding the voyages of Zheng He to demonstrate that he never ventured into this part of the world. This does not prevent many people still believing Menzies.

The second issue revolves around the relative significance of certain events. In providing a narrative, no two histories will ever be the same. Individual authors will select different events to emphasise, vary in choosing the motives that actuated the various actors, and disagree about what were the most important factors in explaining the historical circumstances. For example, until recently most historians did not take much notice of the influence of climate in history. It was not considered to be of great significance. Only recently, for example, has the “Little Ice Age” that began in the fourteenth century and lasted for several centuries come to be regarded as an “event” that had a formative role in the creation of the modern world.

In a liberal democratic society we do not always agree that certain events happened or that particular events have as much significance as they were once believed to have had. History is always about interpretation. To link the process of interpretation with “relativism” is profoundly wrong. There will always be disagreements about interpretations of history. This is as true of narrative history as of any other form of history. There will never be some sort of happy history community in which historians sit around as “brothers and sisters” in peace and charity agreeing with each other. Historians may even be as divided as Anglicans.

In this sense there will always be “history wars”, because historians, like scientists, will invariably differ about the interpretation of evidence. Such disagreement is a healthy aspect of a liberal democratic society.

There is a second sense in which the term “history wars” is used. It is concerned with whether the Australian past was something good and therefore to be praised, or something bad and therefore to be condemned. This sort of history war is pointless and selfdefeating. The war in this sense will only come to an end when historians recognise a couple of things: first, that history is primarily concerned with facts and their interpretation, not with passing moral judgments; second, that history is not the handmaiden of contemporary politics.

The history wars long pre-dated the prime ministership of John Howard. They came to public prominence because the agenda of the “Black Armband” brigade was taken up by Paul Keating as part of his “big picture”. Their willingness to use history for political purposes provided useful ammunition for Mr Keating on such matters as indigenous affairs, the republic and multiculturalism. He wanted to transform Australia, and he recognised that in order to capture the future one needed first to conquer the past. This meant distorting history for political purposes, not just in areas such as Aboriginal history but also in such topics as the history of Australian republicanism.

Unfortunately Mr Rudd’s speech does nothing to assist Australia’s history wars to move from an unhealthy obsession with cheering or booing the past to one in which there is informed intellectual debate. If anything, his speech encourages the unhelpful idea that the real purpose of history is to serve moral and political concerns. In fact, one can discern a sort of political program in Rudd’s pronouncements on this matter. Kevin wants to bring all Australians, all the descendants of this “motley” collection of disinherited individuals, into communion with his vision of the family of the nation. It will be one in which the family of the nation is united in a set of ideals based on social democracy and from which those who hold other ideals, who hold interpretations of the past that are unacceptable, will be cast into the darkness. Hence, in other contexts, he is working hard to expel the Liberals and John Howard from the history of the past twenty-five years of Australian history.

In the final analysis Kevin does not really believe in inclusiveness, only in including those who hold to his version of Australian history. If you want to understand how this process works just look at what is happening in contemporary Anglicanism.

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