Features Australia

Why the history wars matter

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

In a widely-publicised incident, two attention-seekers from the far-right Patriot Blue group harassed Senator Sam Dastyari in a Melbourne pub and then posted the film of the bullying on Facebook. This is proof that stupid is as stupid does, but will still be reported by click bait-seeking media.

But according to some media, the Dastyari incident is proof that Australia remains a deeply racist country in need of anti-discrimination laws to stamp out the racist abuse that is ‘still very Australian’. This conflation of the idiotic actions of fringe activists into a denunciation of all Australians and justification for muzzling free speech is self-evidently absurd. One article even claimed ‘our multiculturalism is a success’ despite how indubitably racist it claims the country is.

However, this reaction is clearly grounded in the kind of politicised Australian history taught in universities for at least a generation, which says that latent racism continues to fester below the accepting and egalitarian façade of Australian society. This understanding of our history is false yet clearly influential — and shows why the ‘history wars’ remain a crucial battle of ideas. The cultural war over the practice and teaching of Australian history has never mattered more than it does right now to counteract the threat rampant grievance-mongering identity politics poses not only to free speech, but also to the social harmony that has become the hallmark of today’s racially diverse and tolerant Australia.

Since the 1970s, a once radical — but now orthodox — school of social history has dominated Australian history teaching. The focus of this school is on specific social issues at specific periods of time, and has been underpinned by an identity politics agenda that academic historians have openly admitted is the motivating force for the kind of ‘relevant’ history they write ‘from below’. The problem with this approach is not with enquiry into previously under studied topics such as gender and race per se, nor with acknowledging the discreditable aspects of Australian history, such as the mistreatment of Indigenous Australians. The problem is that by injecting modern political preoccupations into the past, history is turned into propaganda — into agitprop — to advance contemporary political, social and policy agendas.

These concerns especially apply to the orthodox histories of Australian racism, and to the divisive kind of identity politics they encourage by misleading students about the character of Australian society. These histories do not simply set the record straight about the undoubted racist aspects of our past. Instead, they challenge the alleged ‘myths’ about the nation’s history of egalitarianism and the fabled ‘fair go’ for all — by twisting our understanding of the kind of country Australia is today. By focusing on the formation of the White Australia Policy, or on goldfield violence against the Chinese, or on frontier conflict, these events are not treated as artefacts of times past, but as living legacies that ‘prove’ the role that the supposedly perpetual history of ‘racism’ allegedly continues to play in contemporary Australian society.

The problem with this ‘slice approach’ to history, as applied in both university courses and school curriculums, is that students are taught about the history of racism by citing examples of Australians being nasty — and worse — to other races. This is history in the most limited sense of the word. It wrongly assumes the continuity of Australian attitudes to race, and disregards the great changes that have occurred in Australian society over the past 70 years.

Overlooked is the (seemingly miraculous) process by which the legacy of the White Australia Policy was gradually overcome after World War II, and how Australia has been transformed into probably the world’s most successful multi-racial nation. Ignored is the way we have successfully worked at overcoming the racist legacies of earlier times by promoting a national culture of tolerance and acceptance, principally by means of extending the ‘fair go’ ethos on a colour-blind basis to all-comers regardless of origin. Debunking the now orthodox account of Australia as a timelessly racist country is increasingly important because the use, abuse and distortion of our history lies behind the politicisation of racial issues by organisations such as the Human Rights Commission. It was first injected into politics as part of the ‘national identity’ debate in the early ‘90s by the Keating Government to justify the insertion of Section 18C in the Racial Discrimination Act. The same view of our history has informed the Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner’s interventions into the free speech debate, where he has argued that Section 18C should be retained to keep the ‘dark underbelly’ of Australian racism in check.

More concerning is the assertion that overcoming ‘racism’ requires racial quotas in business. This ‘diversity’ agenda is completely contrary to the way the nation has achieved its remarkable multi-racial success story, which is by overlooking racial and other differences and finding commonalities — not by institutionalising difference, let alone by politicising it.

This grievance-mongering is dangerous because it plays to a receptive audience. The orthodoxy has largely won the battle of ideas within academia; many university-educated people are deeply invested in the notion that minorities are perpetual victims of racism. But the identity warriors should be careful what they wish for. If so-called ‘white privileged’ Australians have their equality of opportunity denied — with fundamental rights such as free speech curtailed in the name of promoting diversity — identity politics may foster racialised politics and social divisions. A nightmare scenario that should be avoided at all costs.

Getting the history of Australian racism right is therefore in the national interest. And what a wonderful national story there is to tell. The nation has achieved what the founders thought impossible when they barred other races based on the belief that a multi-racial country would inevitably lead to racial strife. That ordinary Australians, through the collective commitment to the principle of the ‘fair go’ regardless of race, have proven this premise wrong is, perhaps, the greatest chapter in our national story.

If Australian schools and universities taught this, the true history of Australian racism, students would learn nothing less than the tolerant ‘fair go’ attitudes that are essential to make a multi-racial society function freely and fairly.

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