Team Australia?

Those who have attacked the old Australian character and the very notion of a national character argue that a diverse nation has no need to discover or define or celebrate a distinctive character; it should be committed solely to the civic values of democracy, the rule of law and toleration – or better, the welcoming of difference – the values that a liberal nation anywhere needs to cultivate. There may come a time when these are enough, though it is hard to imagine a nation so defined being one to love or die for. Will anyone lay down their life for diversity? For the moment anyway we cannot manage without a sense of what unites us as Australians.

(John Hirst, historian, 2007)

History thickets. ‘History is a dense, wild, bramble-choked thicket of unpredictable events, causes, effects and interconnecting influences from which jobbing historians hack out messy clumps sized to become books, articles or – should some competing vandal have already slashed through an area – corrective comments. The task is then to hold aloft one’s freshly ripped out prize, still rife with broken roots and tendrils, and to blend a touch of artifice with truth in order to convince others that they really see – especially if they squint properly in just the right light – a neat and tidy whole, if not completely self-contained then at least internally consistent and comprehensible.’ (Paul Kielstra, historian of the slave trade)

Beautiful the next. ‘The support we receive from the school community is most rewarding and plays a vital role in our mission to ensure that the youth of today are aware of and appreciate the importance of our military history to our Australian way of life today.’ (Anzac Day Commemoration Committee Qld, announcing extension of ‘special purchase opportunity’ on ‘ANZAC themed education packs’)

Jokes at the Front. ‘One can joke with a badly-wounded man and congratulate him on being out of it. One can disregard a dead man. But even a miner can’t make a joke that sounds like a joke over a man who takes three hours to die, after the top part of his head has been taken off by a bullet fired at twenty yards’ range.’ (Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That)

The play-book. ‘The formula for saving any dictatorship is universal: create an enemy, start a war. The state of war is the regime’s elixir of life. A nation in patriotic ecstasy becomes one with its “national leader”, while dissenters can be declared “national traitors”.’ (Mikhail Shishkin, Russian writer, referring to his own country, September 2014)

War and sentimentality. ‘Sentimentality distances and fetishizes its object; it is the natural ally of jingoism. So long as we indulge it, we remain incapable of debating the merits of war without being charged with diminishing those who fought it.’ (Elizabeth Samet, West Point lecturer)

History pumped in. ‘More and more, what we “feel” about collective history seems like something manufactured, and kind of pumped into us, rather than a real emotion.’ (Michael Stipe, musician and commentator, writing about 9/11 and related issues)

Trade-off (I). ‘For some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift … so that there can be more protection.’ (Prime Minister Abbott, 22 September 2014)

Trade-off (II). ‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety’. (Benjamin Franklin, ‘Reply to the Governor‘ (1755)

Trade-off (III). ‘War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.’ (President John F. Kennedy)

9 October 2014 (from Honest History e-newsletter No. 19)

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