Advance Australia Fair: ignore the other national histories on offer.

National history is the story that binds ‘us who make up the nation’ into a single entity with a collective memory. It has a purpose and as such we can choose what historical events and realities to put into that story, whilst forgetting the rest. Of the four main current contenders for our national history, I think we should pick ‘Advance Australia Fair’ as the only truly useful one.

In nearly all Western countries, national history binds those who live somewhere with a story of what those who previously lived there were up to, even when the ancestors came from lots of other places. This is particularly true of Australians, some 30% of whom were not born in Australia and some 70% of whom will have one or more grandparents who were not born in Australia. But it also holds for the history of Great Britain, the USA, France, and even Germany: their national histories are not the histories of the ancestors of those who are now British, American, French, or German.

It is crucial for national historians to realise that it is irrelevant whether national history is accurate or balanced. A national history unites those who live in a place into harmony and productivity. We are free to accentuate whatever aspect of the past we need for the purposes of binding the current population in a fruitful story; free to ignore and forget the rest. It is said that winners write history. So let us be winners and choose wisely.

When it comes to the history of Australia, one can currently choose four stories with some historical truth to them.

Those who wish to see Australia as the vessel for first-Australians can rightfully point to the 40,000 years in which around a million Aboriginals (with varying ancestries and waves of conquest themselves) lived here. In terms of life-years, the human history of the first-Australians represents 99.9% of the history of Australia. Within this ‘dream time’ history, the 0.1% of human-years that has occurred in the last few centuries merely represents an invasion of others, a blip.

Those who wish to bind current Australians to a Christian guilt-trip can rightfully point to the near annihilation (by disease and design) of the prior population, followed by 2 centuries of Anglo-Saxon dominance that had little regard for other cultures and has successfully replicated itself onto all newcomers from other places. Though it is of course textbook racism to blame white newcomers for white guilt of an earlier wave of white people, one might argue that wherever one’s ancestors truly came from, it is a fair bet that they will have replaced, murdered, and interbred-via-rape several previous populations at some point. That assessment includes first-Australians, by the way. So the determined guilt-historian might as well blame all Australians for a genocide as a symbol for what some ancestors will have been up to somewhere.

Those who wish to depict Australia as a place of frontiers and a welcoming land to all productive newcomers can pick the era of the new waves of migrants in the 19th, 20th, and 21st century. For the ancestor-years-lived-in-Australia of 95% of the population, it would indeed be a fair description to say that Australia was an unknown land the ancestors had to discover and get used to, a new country born in exploration and still a place of wonder for the latest newcomers. The vast majority of ancestor-years lived in Australia will be better described by wonder and making-a-go rather than the guilt-trip, simply because the vast majority arrived so recently (the guilt-trip bit was a blip within a blip). So one can point to the welcoming national anthem and to current citizen ceremony history as reflective of the experienced national history of Australia.

Those who want to prepare Australia for future wars and tie the population into stories of blind obedience to authority, can point to the world wars when droves of young Australians died for the whims of its leaders. They can similarly point to the Boer wars beforehand, and the Korean/Iraq wars afterwards. The young Australians and their families involved in those wars wanted to believe their involvement was meaningful, as do the current families of servicemen and women. So the current war-mongers-in-charge have historical precedent on their side when they perpetuate a 150 years long ancestry of promoting blind obedience and faith in the mythologies of those in power.

So you have four histories to choose from, each with some historical accuracy for those who insist on such things. Each is a perversion and gross simplification of our lives and that of our ancestors. Indeed, none of the four captures the mundane realities of the 100,000 years that our human ancestors have lived. We should dispense with what the egos of the historians dictate and choose on the basis of our combined egos.

Personally, I think the ‘we are a welcoming frontier country’ history is the one that best serves Australians’ current interests. It is the nicest of the national stories on offer, the most inclusive and the most generous to the incoming waves of migrants and the vast majority of those who live here.

I thus reject the war-monger stories now told about the wars, as well as the ‘born in sin’ stories, and even the ‘dream time’ stories. I do not reject them because they are untrue, or because they lack a constituency of people who believe them and want to believe them. I reject them because they are divisive. No more than slivers of these stories should be in our education curriculum.

The dream time story is not useful because too few can identify with it. The guilt trip is not useful because no modern nation wants to celebrate their ancestors as genocidal egotists and rapists (unlike the Romans who celebrated both). The blind obedience story is the story of mental retards who lack the courage and capacity to stand on their own two feet, and is thereby also belittling.

Advance Australia Fair, I say, from all the lands on earth we come. Ignore the other stories on offer, I say, for their purpose is to demean us, not unite us.

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32 Responses to Advance Australia Fair: ignore the other national histories on offer.

  1. conrad says:

    I don’t think we need to choose one or the other of those stories. I also think that at least for things which can be factual (perhaps factual enough), things should be as accurate as possible and people can decide for themselves how important it is and the extent to which they ascribe importance to any of the features of those stories. I’m especially not sure why we need one single nationalist Australia-is-always-great story.

    For example, unlike as you imply, things like Aboriginal history don’t necessarily lead to guilt trips but rather understanding. If you look at the Maori over in NZ, it seems to be the case that promoting their history and culture has lead to better outcomes than simply ignoring them and pretending everyone should believe the same history without out too many of the ugly parts and differences across groups. Living with differences thus helps.

    The other basic problem with having one too dominant a story is that those that still don’t believe it simply get marginalized and you end with groups that look at things categorically, in which case you have more division rather than less, especially when large chunks of people don’t believe it (just look at the way the US is turning into tribes with shared opinions, no matter how loony, on everything). And what happens if the dominant story ends up as a loony one as some governments would like?

    • Conrad
      Agree about, one dominant story, particularly in a culture such as ours that is definitely, multiple voices-multiple viewpoints .
      For example many environmental historians these days approach the discipline of the ‘telling of the tale ‘ in a fugue like , multiple voices way- a good example is Tom Griffiths “Forests of Ash “ .

  2. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    I didn’t waste my time after reading christian guilt trip.
    Where did that spring from.

  3. Hi Paul
    While I realise that you are talking about National Myths rather than History , you would benefit from reading The Art of Time Travel, Historians and Their Craft , By Tom Griffiths the W K Hancock Professor of History at the A N U
    (His books and essays have won prizes in literature, history, science, politics and journalism, including the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History, the Alfred Deakin Prize for an Essay Advancing Public Debate, and the Douglas Stewart and Nettie Palmer Prizes for Non-Fiction.)

    • Paul Frijters says:

      Hi John,

      you’re a generous guy :-)

      Yes, indeed, I am not talking about history but the story that is national history. I think of the above post as the way in which national history is thought of de facto but almost never openly, consciously. National history is not really history at all. True historians are probably in the way of optimal national history.

  4. Leigh says:

    Life is very complicated for some people

  5. Hi Paul

    “a perversion and gross simplification of our lives and that of our ancestors”
    is that really a good foundation for thinking about, anything?

    • Paul Frijters says:

      a necessity I would say. Life and history is too complex for us to capture if not via gross simplifications that miss out large parts of the actual experience. It is good to remind ourselves of this so as to keep us ‘honest’ at some level.

      • Simplification sure , the map is not the country, that’s the great virtue of maps, they fold up and fit in the glove box.

        But perversion ?

        History allows for many
        voices, many interpretations- storys ,but it doesn’t allow for ‘ Germany won WW2’ perversions.

        • paul frijters says:

          I am afraid perversions are normal when it comes to national history (again, the distinction between history and national history is crucial). National history perversion is normal. Maybe not to the point that Germany won WWII (although Saddam indeed had his people celebrate victory in the first gulf war!), but then the current German national history story is almost unique, dare I say unsustainable.

          Have a look at how WWII is now taught in Japan….or how Austria deals with its role in WWII….

  6. Sure BTW have you read Simon Schama’s : Landscape and Memory ?

    As far as Australia goes none of the four possible foundation myths that you list seem viscerally convincing to me at least.
    Not sure that we , these days have a foundation myth, of any kind at all.

    BTW linking the AIF whose foundation myth is :

    “not lip service, nor obsequious homage to superiors, nor servile observance of forms and customs…the Australian army is proof that individualism is the best and not the worst foundation upon which to build up collective discipline. “

    to “blind obedience to authority” seems more than perverse.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      that is an hilarious quote, quite out of character with the recent Anzac celebrations and the recent ‘Anzus treaty’ utterances of the commander in chief. They should push that quote a bit more and take it seriously. Stay out of a few wars, re-think whether they should have been in WWI, etc.

  7. Hi Paul
    The words are Monash’s explanation of why the AIF had in 1918 outperformed every other allied army- by factors of up to three.

    “Monash’s success in part reflected the tolerance of Australian society, but to a larger degree his success – in the harshest experience the young nation had suffered – shaped that tolerance and demonstrated to Australians that the Australian character was diverse, multi-ethnic and a blend of the traditions of the “bush” and the “city”.

    According to author Colin MacInnes, as recounted by Monash’s biographer, Geoffrey Serle, Monash’s “presence and prestige…made anti-Semitism…impossible in Australia”.
    ( the Wikipedia on Monash is pretty accurate)

    If we want to ground our national history on , open welcoming, “our first equal opportunity employer” then the ethos of the first AIF could be the best, not the worst, place to start.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      “outperformed every other allied army- by factors of up to three”

      I presume they mean by that that 3 times more opponents were killed per Australian soldier than per a soldier from some other allied countries?

      Yeah, I am not sure we should be all too celebratory about that either. You want to be known as a country that can defend itself, but to be an efficient killing machine at the beck and call of foreign powers? Hmm….

  8. M Dunn says:

    A ‘national history’ that is neither ‘accurate or balanced’ can scarcely serve as useful social glue nor as a solid foundation for building our country. Your 3rd optimistic option does come closest among your four to being accurate and balanced, and can happily assimilate the truthful elements of the other three, which I agree are divisive but they also false.

    The dreamtime was a timeless land, almost entirely cut off from the best achievements of civilisations elsewhere; the ‘guilty nation’ is an ideological invention albeit nourished by darker elements of our past. As to the war-mongerers’ vision, broadly it seems a negligible view, but frankly I think a strong case historically can be made for our participation in at least the major wars that does not simply rely on the emotions of those who fought in them or their descendants.

    • paul frijters says:

      “A ‘national history’ that is neither ‘accurate or balanced’ can scarcely serve as useful social glue nor as a solid foundation for building our country.”

      let’s turn the question around: do you know of a country where the national history as it is taught in schools, in remembrance ceremonies, and in citizenship tests IS accurate and balanced AND is a successful social glue? I struggle to think of one. I see pantomime, selectivity, and total fabrication invoking mythical beings. Where do you see accurate and balanced?

      • Paul
        could you give some specific examples of , total fabrication (with or without mythical beings) ?
        And could you give an example of a national history that is in your view a successful social glue?

        Selectivity and theatre (history museums are in the way they are laid out in space literally theatres of memory ) are inherent vices-virtues of all History- at least the stuff worth reading.

        • Paul Frijters says:

          the US has a very successful national history story. So does France, and now China. Plenty of successful glue stories around.

          Fabrications, small and big: the ‘eternal’ Han stuff in China, the supposed speech by Ataturk on the bravery of Australian soldiers (Nick has a nice video on this!), Iraq weapons of mass destruction, lineages to King Arthur among the noble houses of Europe (it is a classic: quite possibly there never was a king Arthur yet the nobles all claimed descent from him).

          Lot’s of fabricated histories can be found in the cathedrals and pilgrim centers of Europe. Shroud of Turin, bones of Saints, tears of the madonna, etc. The Christian re-writing of X-mas is a classic in the genre of made-up history (the crib, the 3 kings, the star, the birth, etc. All retold and re-packaged to fit X-mas).

          The main ‘normal’ fabrication is the supposed continuity of ‘us’ centuries ago. Any story of ‘the Dutch’ in the 15th century, the ‘English’ in the 11th, ‘the Australians’ in the 19th, etc. are fabrications: there was no such people at the time and they didn’t think of themselves in such a way, and the people being talked about are hardly related to those now calling themselves Dutch, English, Australian, etc. Culturally, linguistically and genetically the correspondence is minimal.

          Note that this bit (the historical continuity of ‘us’) is the key fabrication that is useful and important. It is totally necessary to pretend historical continuity of a peoples over time for it is that which gives rise to national history: without that fabrication there is no national history. ‘us’ through the ages is the key myth.

          btw, have you got a reference for that Australian war efficiency claim you made? Such an odd thing to claim: did someone really manage to count these things?

          • Paul
            By 1918 the British were quite well organized and detailed records are part of that. I will look up the bibliography.
            From memory the AIF were about 9% of the British army and captured around 20% of all German prisoners.

  9. M Dunn says:

    Let’s consider the issue of national continuity, which is the most important ‘fabricated’ item in your list. Of course every nation state has a mix of cont/and discont/inuities. A sense of Australian-ness did emerge in the 19thC and has been much researched and discussed. Our constitutional and legal arrangements have still some very ancient roots, likewise language and how we discuss political and ethical issues.

    If you are saying there are strongly-rooted stories told about our past which have little or no factual [i.e. historical] basis, but which may reinforce the nation-state, then who could argue ? But you seem to be saying that we can in some way reasonably select and possibly invent unhistorical stories, if we think they would be useful for uniting the nation. And then we should propagate and teach stories as if they were factual. That sounds like propaganda, whose weakness is its falsity, whose vice exists in the evil acts performed in its service.

    • paul frijters says:

      national history is definitely propaganda. And it is also true that there is a deep tradeoff between truth and utility. As Machiavelli already remarked, when it comes to state craft many things become good that are otherwise bad.

      You have not responded to my challenge though. Can you give me a balanced and accurate national history?

  10. Hi Paul I have put my back out , and not able to do much.
    You might be able to find this book in a library

    The funny thing is :

    For his services during the war, and in addition to his creation as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, Monash was appointed as a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George on 1 January 1919.[41] He also received numerous foreign honours – the French appointed him a Grand Officer of the Légion d’honneur[42] and awarded him the Croix de Guerre,[1][43] the Belgians appointed him a Grand Officer of the Order of the Crown (Grand-Officier Ordre de la Couronne) and awarded him the Croix de Guerre,[44] and the United States awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal.[45]”

    Yet Monash received no equivalent honors from Australia.

  11. Hi Paul
    My bulged ‘disk’ is a bit better but cant sit for too long.
    This set of papers :1918: DEFINING VICTORY from a joint Australian- Canadian military history conference could be of interest.

    The conference focused on the battle of Amiens 8th august 1918, the day Ludendorff described as :

    August 8th was the black day of the German Army in the history of the war. This was the worst experience I had to go through … early on August 8th, in a dense fog that had been rendered still thicker by artificial means, the British, mainly with Australian and Canadian divisions, attacked between Albert and Moreuil with strong squadrons of Tanks, but for the rest with no great superiority. They broke between the Somme and the Luce deep into our front. The Divisions in line allowed themselves to be completely overwhelmed … August 8th made things clear for both Army Commands, both for the German and for that of the enemy.

    Why the Australian and the Canadian army Corps performed so well, both on that day and in the “100 days” that followed is more interesting, nuanced and not simple.
    Thats about as much as I can manage for today

    • Paul

      In answer to your earlier question :did someone really manage to count such things?
      The voluminous footnotes to the conference papers I linked to above, should give you an idea of the sheer amount of extensive, detailed records that were kept, by both sides.

      For example we know that the AIF also ‘topped the class’ for rates of VD and rates of military imprisonment.

  12. Hi Paul
    The problem with your versions of four possible national ‘stories ‘ is that the one you prefer ‘ Welcoming ‘ is the only one that is in reasonably creditable in a historic reality sense ; the other stories smell too much of ‘straw’.

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