The point Stan Grant makes is simple: history is choice. It is the choice we make in the story we tell of ourselves. “History is not dead, it is not past or redundant,” Grant writes, “it is alive in all of us: we are history.”
It is from this position that Grant questions the public telling of a lie, an engraving on a plinth in the middle of Sydney that says James Cook “discovered this territory in 1770”.
Grant notes this inscription is a concrete expression of the legal fiction on which White Australia was founded, the principle of terra nullius. Of this statue in the middle of Sydney he makes no recommendation, just an observation: “Americans are tearing down the monuments to hate, but we remain oblivious to ours.”
So brittle is Australia’s relationship to its history, that this was enough to provoke censure. The Daily Telegraph put Grant’s thinking on its front page, under the headline “Aussie Taliban”. Two men in Islamic robes were Photoshopped under the statue, apparently tearing it down.
This is the quality of debate in which this statue stakes its fiction. So terrified of its history is this country that it will do anything not to reckon with it.
Peter Phelps, a member of the New South Wales government, says: “Attempts to rewrite our public history for the sake of political correctness – which is what these activist want to do – is little better than Stalin erasing his political opponent from photographs.”
Apparently without irony, the NSW Treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, says: “Commemorating one part of our history shouldn’t have to come at the expense of another part – that’s just divisive.”
Andrew Bolt calls it, “the Taliban Left – now destroying monuments and Australia Day”. He goes on to deny the existence of the Stolen Generations and warns Grant that he doesn’t “really want such ‘a full reckoning of our nation’s past’ when he’s promoting fake history himself as he rages in his well-cut jackets over Aboriginal ‘injustice’ – ‘our suffering, our humiliation’ ”.
No one has suggested pulling down this statue, or other statues in this country. Its inscription has simply been referred to an advisory committee. Elsewhere, the response has been to erect plaques countering the narrative of colonial relics.
But historian Keith Windschuttle pre-empts those recommendations. Facts do not matter here. The only concern is that the past remains intact and uninterrogated.
“The only response you are going to get from them,” Windschuttle says of the committee, “is that the statue should be removed.”
Grant described Australian history as a “hymn to whiteness”. The country seems desperate to keep it that way.
The outrage this week at a suggestion that was never made is about making sure that hymn never changes. It is about power in this country – a country where columnists still deny that government policy ever took Indigenous children away from their parents, that continues a quarrel with the facts of the frontier wars, with the documented massacres of Indigenous people.
The Australia these columnists cling to is one chiselled into a plinth in 1879. To them it does not matter if what was chiselled is untrue. The lie is comforting. Their self-image is built of their superiority, and anything that questions that questions them.
These people are not thinkers. They are maintenance men, running repairs on the factory where they produce their false image of the past. They are anxious, uncritical, and they are in charge.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 26, 2017 as "Past convictions". Subscribe here.