Bongiorno, Frank: The year some things changed

Frank Bongiorno

The year some things changed‘, Sydney Review of Books, 3 December 2018 updated

Head of the ANU School of History (and Honest History president) reviews The Year Everything Changed: 2001 by Phillipa McGuinness, author (and publisher of The Honest History Book).

Here is an accomplished maker of meaning [says Bongiorno of McGuinness]. Her methods are not always those of the orthodox historian, but are no less valid for that. Meaning, for McGuinness, resides in what actions might disclose about the nation, the world, and sometimes what it means to be human … [For example] If there is a better judged account of how modern Australian national identity works (and doesn’t work) than that in the opening chapter of this book, I don’t know about it.

And what of the difference between the title of the book and the title of the review?

In the end, McGuinness is too acute an observer to accept the journalistic cliché that 2001 did in fact change everything. Tampa, for instance, was novel but it was also old. It represented a government newly determined to take a hard line against asylum-seekers. But it was also rooted in the Australian past, continuing long-standing fears of unexpected boat arrivals and of being swamped and displaced by envious people with dark skins and odious cultures … Nor did 2001 see the invention of fear as an instrument of political manipulation. Rather, the extraordinary happenings of that year provided the powerful with more potent means to exploit fear and accumulate more power. It was notably successful in diverting public attention from global problems that require patience, skill and imagination to solve – such as climate change – rather than the beating of chests and the flexing of muscles.

The long review is well worth the read but then, it seems, so is the book. For another review, see Graeme Davison in Inside Story in June. He says:

The Year Everything Changed may not advance our knowledge of why each of these events [of 2001] unfolded as it did, nor of the political debates they unleashed. What it offers is something different: an understanding of how history is seen and felt, from the vantage point of a candid, historically literate, morally engaged witness to an extraordinary time. In reliving the year with her, we better understand how events, often considered distantly and separately, concatenated in time and reverberated in the minds of contemporaries to generate a palpable sense that “everything” had changed. Since there is no sign that everything will stop changing, we may need such perceptive, humane histories more rather than less in the uncertain years ahead.


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