Stephens, David: Four history reads for a wet weekend, including Henry Reynolds on Australia Day and wrapping ourselves in the flag

David Stephens*

‘Four history reads for a wet weekend, including Henry Reynolds on Australia Day and wrapping ourselves in the flag’, Honest History, 6 February 2021

Forty millimetres of rain overnight at HH HQ in Canberra, and there may be more to come. We found these articles recently, covering subjects from how we work Covid-19 into the collection of national narratives to a piece on statues and what they disclose. Plus Henry Reynolds on pseudo-nationalism and Phil Cashen’s deep dive into something Australia has always done well – sectarianism, in this case in Gippsland just after the Great War.

  • Katie Holmes in a long read in The Conversation says, ‘The sense that a generation carries a distinct identity is forged by sharing the “experience of profound and destabilising events”. Those events have their greatest impact if people experience them young, typically in their late teens and early 20s.’ The Covid-19 generation joins the generations that lived through wars and the Great Depression. It is also the climate change generation and, increasingly, the inequality generation. This is an edited version of an essay published in Griffith Review 71: Remaking the Balance.
  • Doug Dingwall in the Canberra Times writes about what the new Canberra statue of former (and but briefly) PM (but long-time Country Party leader and significant figure), John McEwen, tells us about ourselves. (May be a pay-wall but here’s a pdf from our subscription copy.) Critics of public statuary have called for more consultation about what gets built. ‘In all the debate about the statue, McEwen’s contributions and qualities are not in question. The discussion about the sculpture is instead focused mainly on the need to give a better, more accurate representation of Australia and its history in the parliamentary zone.’ The article quotes a number of historians and others on the pros and cons.
  • Henry Reynolds’ most recent piece in Pearls and Irritations asks why, at this time of the year, Australians continue to wrap themselves in the flag of a British colony. ‘By choosing to stick with January 26 (1788) as Australia’s National Day, conservatives are celebrating a date that highlights the very worst of British imperialism – a “rule of law”  belonging to a tiny aristocratic oligarchy with a vicious criminal code defending private property through capital punishment and transportation.’ Reynolds looks both at protests and traditional celebrations. Of the latter, he says this: ‘The clear message conveyed by Australia Day is that during two centuries of settlement nothing can match the significance of the arrival of a fleet of ships carrying 700 convicts cast out as human refuse.’ Detailed discussion and some thoughtful comments from readers. (Henry Reynolds has just brought out another book, Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement.)
  • Finally, indefatigable researcher and blogger, Phil Cashen, from Alberton Shire in Gippsland, writes at length on sectarianism in the area after the Great War. He ‘provides an overview of the extent, nature and causes of the sectarianism that characterised life in the Shire of Alberton in the immediate years after the War … based largely on reports in the local media from the time’. The post covers ‘loyalty tests’, the degree of support for the war effort, educational sectarianism, ‘black-balling’ on the basis of faith or outspokenness, Ireland, and related issues that had been all too familiar before the Great War, and that still persist today. Spokespersons on both sides, Catholic and Protestant, went in hard and often. For more by Phil Cashen, use our Honest History website Search engine or go direct to his excellent blog (213 posts and counting), Shire at War.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website.

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