History as Progress, History as Horror

Looking recently at a picture of a demonstration against the celebration of Australia Day, I could not help but notice a person of Aboriginal descent dressed in that traditional item of costume, the T-shirt, employing that equally traditional instrument, the megaphone.

The megaphone is the perfect instrument for the expression of one of the most reliable and gratifying of all emotions, self-righteousness. The megaphone is versatile: it is also the perfect instrument for the demagogue. It couldn’t be better for making dialogue impossible, for drowning out dissension and for the propagation of half-truths.

Anthony Daniels appears in every Quadrant.
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Historiography is now the favoured subject of the self-righteous demagogue. As a science (I use the word in its loose, continental European sense), historiography’s influence on mass psychology is much underestimated. With the rise in the number of educated persons—by which I mean persons who have spent at least a fifth of their lives in supposedly educational establishments—it has become ever more salient, ever more influential.

The protests against the celebration of Australia Day were an illustration of the effect of changing historiography. A day intended to celebrate the founding of a successful, free and prosperous country was turned by demonstrators into its very opposite, a day of lamentation for that very founding. Thus, the same event more than two centuries ago, the arrival of the First Fleet, gave rise to diametrically opposite assessments of its moral and political significance.

All historiographies are incomplete, of course, for they cannot encompass all that happened in history, and therefore are open to attack by those who object to what they omit. I began to think about this matter when I took an interest in medical history. The first book I read on the subject was Singer and Underwood’s A Short History of Medicine (not so short, I thought it), which was in essence an account of the progress of medicine to its state of enlightenment as of 1962, when the book was published. It consisted of brief descriptions of the work of men who had contributed the new and improved ideas that contributed to the science’s upward march, each contributing his mite, with a few, such as Harvey, Pasteur, Lister, Koch and Ehrlich, contributing much more than a mere mite.

If the Whig interpretation of history, as that of progress, is valid anywhere, it is surely in the history of medicine. And yet there is another school of historiography, much less dominated by doctors than the Whig interpretation, purporting to see medical endeavour whole and not just as a series of intellectual triumphs. This school can soon degenerate into an account of all the stupid or evil things that doctors have done through the ages. It was, after all, two thousand years before anyone thought to examine the value of bloodletting in any rational or scientific way, and George Washington himself may well have been its victim—among, of course, countless others. Nor can we be sure that in the future our current medical practice, or at least some of our current medical practices, will not be seen in this light (a good candidate would be gender reassignment, already the possible subject of a huge class action in Britain). Histories of medicine have been written not as a succession of triumphs but of horrors; and there is always the long struggle of the medical profession for honour, emolument and monopoly to keep the denigratory school busy and, to a certain frame of mind, plausible.

To see the past whole, its triumphs, its disasters, and its events which were neither, is difficult for the dichotomising mind. I am reminded in this context of those diagrams beloved of psychologists of perception, that appear either as an old crone or as Sigmund Freud, or as a duck or a rabbit, but not of the two at the same time. History as progress, history as horror: you must make your choice, at least if you want to use history as a political instrument.

I was a guest not long ago of a friend whose shelves of books I examined. He is a good deal to the left of me politically, but no extremist. His taste in history was for accounts of protest against the status quo, protests to which the authors of the books ascribed most of the progress that has ever been made. Without protest, there would be no progress; with enough protest, progress is assured. 

I am not quite such a conservative as Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, who was against change of all kind, even for the better, and I concede that protest, well-chosen, can encourage or lead to improvement. But there are progressives, so-called, of a certain stripe, the mirror image of the Duke of Cambridge, who are against leaving anything alone, even if change would be for the worse. What changelessness was for the Duke, change is for them, an ultimate good in itself.

A certain historiography goes along with the desire for change for its own sake and at any cost. It looks on the past as nothing but a succession of monstrous injustices and varieties of oppression, of which the present is the legatee and some small (and evil) portion of the population the beneficiary. Thus change, and the protest necessary to bring it about, can only be for the good.    

This view of history draws its plausibility from the undoubted fact that monstrous injustice and oppression, whose instances I hardly need to enumerate, have indeed been a prominent feature of much history. It is impossible to take the blandly optimistic view that whatever was done in the past was all right, or at any rate not too bad, because it was all part of the upward march of progress. Moreover, it is still true unfortunately that much evil persists in the world.

In the circumstances, then, it appears to such people as I have described almost callous to cele­brate anything other than protest itself. How can you celebrate the founding of Australia while the Aborigine problem remains unsolved, while there are Aborigine populations whose life expectancy and other indices of well-being remain so catastrophic, so appalling? The fact that no one has found a complete and indubitable answer to the problem in many years of trying is beside the point.

If the arrival of the First Fleet was a catastrophe, it suggests that there was some better, pre-existing state of society in Australia: and that is likely to be a matter of contention. If I remember my Geoffrey Blainey correctly (The Story of Australia’s People), Aborigine life before the arrival of the First Fleet might not have been a long celebratory ritual of permanent peace and friendship—but I have not followed the secondary literature on that book. At any rate, those who protest against the celebration of Australia Day are likely to have a better view of pre-contact Aborigine life than those who cele­brate it. Does one choose one’s politics because of one’s history, or one’s history because of one’s politics? And if the latter, how does one choose one’s politics?

I can sympathise with Aborigine protests against Australia Day, even if I think they are retrograde and likely to prolong the difficulties and problems of Aborigine society. But I find the protests by non-Aborigines frankly nauseating (not, as it happens, that I am a great enthusiast for national days as a genre anywhere in the world). These privileged and spoilt people seem to me to be protesting against themselves in a way that is at the very least exhibitionistic, and probably outright hypocritical. They strike me as being almost in the position of Claudius:

My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? Forgive my foul murder?
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?

And further:  

Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death! 

There is a difference between Claudius and the protesters, of course: Claudius really did kill King Hamlet, whereas the protesters (who, incidentally, protest too much) have not personally usurped or occupied Aborigine land, or anything like. But yet there is a similarity still: the protesters have no real intention of forgoing what they claim to have been an immoral act of usurpation, of which they are the fortunate legatees. They merely throw their arms about and shout slogans. Alas, such activities, while insincere and hypocritical, can in the long run have real consequences. Someone one day will demand that they act upon their protestations, and they will be too sheepish to decline and admit that they never really meant what they said.

Under his pen-name Theodore Dalrymple, Anthony Daniels recently published the collection Neither Trumpets Nor Violins, co-written with Samuel Hux and Kenneth Francis (New English Review Press) and The Wheelchair and Other Stories (Mirabeau)

2 thoughts on “History as Progress, History as Horror

  • Brian Boru says:

    I must admit that I listen to and watch the ABC from time to time. Mea culpa.
    But it occurred to me that a song which used to be regularly aired on the ABC I have not heard lately.
    The song was by the Seekers and it’s “I am, you are, we are Australians”. The chorus is:-
    “We are one
    But we are many
    And from all the lands on earth we come
    We’ll share a dream
    And sing with one voice
    I am, you are, we are Australian”
    All of a sudden the ABC has stopped playing it. Guess why? I suggest that if any Qol readers still listen to the ABC that we should be sending texts in requesting that it be played.

  • rod.stuart says:

    I listen to it frequently; but not on the ABC.
    It is quite inspirational, unlike the ABC.
    That little quip the other day where they sut Dutton down verges on the criminal.

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