Australia’s so-called ‘history wars’ have, so far, been fought over the perceived legitimacy of her settlement and colonisation. Since the sixties, the left has attempted to shift Australians’ understanding of themselves and their nation from a narrative informed by images of pioneering, adventure, valiant form in battle, and endurance in the face of harsh conditions, to that of illegitimate territorial claims, invasion, dispossession, and oppression.
Although the ‘black-arm band’ view of history has left ANZAC Day – one of the last remaining days in which it is comparatively ‘safe’ to exhibit patriotism – largely untouched, it is fast becoming the next front in this war. Unsurprisingly, given that ‘Invasion Day’ has been beaten past death, Australians participating in ANZAC Day are now being scolded and admonished for any sentiment or view that is does not conform to a tale of a ‘genocidal and ecologically rapacious settler society, promoting a negative national identity based on guilt, shame, and despair’.1
Both philosophers and political nationalists have examined, in great detail, the postmodern Critical Theory that forms the basis of the New Left’s worldview.2 Although at its most specific formulation, the term refers to the Western European Marxist theory informing the Frankfurt School, its practical application in twenty-first-century academia has given rise to critical race theory, post-colonial criticism and feminism. The word ‘critical’ in the term is used as opposed to the word ‘traditional’, and proponents of a critical theory see it as their aim to identify the strictures of social reality that limit the human experience and overcome such strictures on a societal scale. Unfortunately at the local level, the outgrowths of this worldview manifest themselves in a mantra that shrieks: ‘white males are problematic oppressors across all of time and space; people of colour, females, the disabled, and deviants are victims of said oppression; therefore the moral course of action is to rally, shame, mock and shriek at said oppressors until they cease, desist, and give the victims stuff’.
The concerted attempts to smear the history of Australia and the foundations of her national identity follow the same script as these practical critical theorists’ counterparts in Britain and the U.S. What is striking is the apparent lack of self-consciousness with which these agents of deconstruction claim their moral high-ground.
Of course, the Australian Government has an agenda when it commits to spending over $500m on Anzac Day commemorations and, in particular, the Centenary of ANZAC. There is a pragmatic logic to the collective tearful salute of the national flag and the veneration of soldiers as heroes; not only does it give citizens a sense of themselves and their history, but it gives meaning and recognition to those dealing with the loss of family and friends through war, and imbues meaning to the lives that were lost themselves.
Governments need people to care about the nation and the people therein; if they did not, why would anyone resist invasion or war? Men who serve, and society at large, need to believe that the cost of the lives spent in war is exceeded by the cost of their acquiescence to foreign powers: those of slavery, dhimmitude, dispossession and the loss of a future for one’s children.
Much like the academics at the Sorbonne in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, the academic and media establishment cannot conceive of a future in which they are not prominent members of society. They cannot imagine that there are people outside this country – billions of them in fact – who would have no qualms with marching right in and taking everything they could lay their hands on, including their wives and daughters.
As explained by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, self-identifying liberals are at a loss to step into the shoes of their ideological opponents and account for the thought processes of conservatives or the religious. In a solipsistic fashion, the bourgeois ideologues operating at the government-media axis, such as those which populate the offices of Triple J or the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, believe that the only other serious, moral individuals in their home cities are those that think just like they do. Such individuals are drawn to comfort and conformity, signaling their allegiance to the status quo and buying their designer-dogs ‘pupicinos’.
The undermining of historical milestones such as ANZAC Day is not a new phenomenon. As Bendle notes on the new revisionists and their attempts to overlay their narrative onto the 1988 bicentenary:
No recognition is to be given to the astonishing nation-building achievement that has occurred on this continent over the past two centuries. Instead, that history is denounced as a literally unspeakable interlude, largely excluded from the education system. This was made clear in the Introduction to the so-called People’s History of Australia published for the 1988 Bicentenary. Australians should have no illusions about the historical depravity of their nation or about its transient status, it decreed: "This history … rejects myths of national progress and unity. It starts from a recognition that Australian settler society was built on invasion and dispossession [and that] the last two hundred years [was] but a brief, nasty interlude."
In rushing to make their case that Australia’s military history is problematically racist, sexist, genocidal and jingoistic, such revisionists dropped all pretense of sober historical enquiry and did not attempt to support their claims with references to historical evidence. In one of the most prominent revisionist works, What's Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, the authors claimed that ‘blind loyalty’ to Britain was the primary reason for Australia’s support for the Great War, a summation which ignores the geopolitical context of Australia’s interests at the time and the non-European theatres at our very doorstep.
This is not just a matter of who has ‘got the story right’. At the risk of delving far into historiography, or even relying upon a postmodern lens of history, there is no single, ‘true’ story of Australian history that is ‘correct’ to the exclusion of all others. Indeed, there are sources that may be gathered, collated and understood within a synthesised context that affords an historian an approximate picture of the events of the past. However, inclusion, exclusion, loading, framing and focus are all inescapable parameters of narrative creation that shape our understanding of the past. With that complexity in mind, the nationalist must consider which rendering of history will best serve the interests of his sovereign nation.
The smug, self-righteous claims made by effete journalists and academics seek to deny that there may be any pragmatic self-interest in a positive affirmation of the past by highlighting accomplishments and venerating sacrifice rather than drawing attention to apparent racism or victimisation of Indigenous servicemen.
James Brown, author of Anzac's Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession, attempts to ‘flip the script’ by expressing his indignation at the perceived gauche aesthetic of Anzac day:
Anzac Day has morphed into a sort of military Halloween. We have Disneyfied the terrors of war like so many ghosts and goblins. It has become a day when some dress up in whatever military costume might be handy. Where military re-enactors enjoy the same status as military veterans. The descendants of citizen soldiers swell the ranks of parades their grandfathers might have avoided, claiming their share of the glory and worship, swimming in a sea of nostalgia. Sort through all this and you’ll find the servicemen and women increasingly standing to one side … forgoing their uniforms more often than not.
Brown contends that the majority of Australian society ‘fetishises war but doesn’t know the first damn thing about fighting it’. This is a ‘criticism’ that could be made about any Western nation; it is always a thin vanguard of society that goes to war; hardly something to be decried. Brown’s reference to veterans appearing in civilians’ clothing is dubious; how would an onlooker pinpoint the presence of such undeclared servicemen? Brown’s claim that the soldiers themselves are as hurt by well-meaning Australians who turn up to Anzac marches today as the vandals and thugs who threw paint and spat on Vietnam veterans does not even warrant refutation.
Revisionists such as Brown indicate that instead of participating in the ‘military Halloween’, Australians must do the moral thing and atone for past sins by prostrating at the altar of political correctness, redeeming themselves by including the voices of the marginalised. Such exhortations promote shame and denigrate any positive sense of self as Australian that runs any deeper than a jingoistic civic identity muddled around words like ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘a nation of immigrants’. It is a deliberate obfuscation of what the Australian nation truly is and has been since its inception.
Newly minted ambassador for the diversity bandwagon David Morrison is of course at the cutting edge of Australian history’s revision:
…given the demographic changes affecting the Australian workforce over the next few decades, the Army will simply not be able to meet its recruiting targets or maintain its range of skills unless we become fully representative of the community from which we draw.
In that regard the Anzac legend – as admirable as it is – has become something of a double-edged sword. Many Australians have an idealised image of the Australian soldier as a rough-hewn country lad – invariably white – a larrikin who fights best with a hangover and who never salutes officers, especially the Poms. This is a pantomime caricature. Every soldier is Mel Gibson in Gallipoli and frankly it undermines our recruitment from some segments of society …
Migrants whose ancestors had no part in the wars commemorated by ANZAC Day will not feel included by its symbolism. Families whose collective memories are not touched by any of the ANZACs’ sacrifices will not recognise themselves in the films and novels which honour them. In a corresponding way, the rich civilisations and particular achievements of these individuals’ families and cultures are not for Australians to lay claim to. The past is by nature exclusionary, and the nation of Australia was exclusionary; indeed, the nation’s boundary had a formational role in its construction.
The objection here is not just to an intimidating taboo of ‘militarism’: it is an objection to nativist self-determination at any point. That the importation of inassimilable elements of a culture that manifested itself as a historical military enemy has led certain groups to feel excluded from national commemorations rooted in past events is hardly surprising.
Much like the other national days deemed worthy of a public holiday such as Christmas Day, Easter Sunday, and Australia Day, ANZAC Day has arguably been cheapened by crass merchandising and gushing sentimentality; who could forget the ‘Fresh in our Memories’ tagline with which fallen diggers were emblazoned by supermarket megagiant Woolworths? In the debasement of culture that is mass-produced modernity, this process is inevitable.
In fairness, how can the onlooker expect the quiet solemnity and muted grief of the families of the original ANZACs to be the only motive accompanying a commemoration operation one hundred years on? Merchants have always tried to cash in on such occasions, but this itself does not warrant ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ and simply writing the whole thing off as passé. That is precisely the kind of convenient moral posturing one has come to expect from the latté-left establishment. As for the enormous sums spent on the spectacles and memorials, there is a legitimate case to be made that the money could be better spent on current soldiers or veterans, or not spent at all.
However, the surging popularity of Anzac Commemorations which has been witnessed over the past two decades is not primarily a function of a state-sponsored propaganda machine, but instead a clinging-on by many Australians to the only connection to its proud past that is still deemed legitimate or acceptable. It is a dog-whistle for Australian patriotism, one that by definition excludes most newcomers. Most ‘Aussie’ Australians, those with Anglo-Saxon or European roots, would have family who fought in one or both of the World Wars for Australia. It is a legacy that cannot easily be shoehorned into the lukewarm civic nationalism of ‘democracy’ and ‘multiculturalism’ that is sold to Australians of all stripes. Whether subconsciously or consciously, Australians appreciate this reality and this accounts for the striking way in which ANZAC legend speaks to them; a drive that hand-wringing journalists and revisionist historians will never acknowledge.
The fundamental incompatibility of the ANZAC mythology of Australian nationhood with the multicultural narrative causes all sorts of amusing confusion amongst the chattering classes. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Iranian immigrant Saeed Fassaie tried to claim the diggers of World War One as ‘ours’, asking that Australians use the event to promote an Australian brand of multiculturalism, since it has been the least catastrophic out of all the other experiments:
As a migrant and Australian, I believe that our multicultural society should be an epitome for the world to model, where people with different skin colours, religions and cultures live together in harmony and peace. We should all attend Anzac Day services and marches to honour the grand sacrifices our diggers made. But we should not glorify war; instead, we should celebrate harmony and peace. Migrants should make themselves more active and visible in such commemorations on Anzac Day and let the world see that we have the solution, we are the solution.
Again, pacifists and peace-marchers claim a moral high ground to which they are not entitled. It is the lack of power, control, or a sufficiently terrifying violent threat from their own state to deter competitors that creates the conditions of civil strife from which men like Fassaie flee. Why is it that such individuals flee to Australia, a well-defended and well-resourced island continent with powerful allies, a full-time highly-trained professional regular defence force, and high-tech weaponry?
The revisionist David Stephens creates counter-propaganda for unionised and left-wing primary school teachers at the Orwellian-sounding honesthistory.net.au. At a speech given to the Balmain Institute titled ‘Downsizing Anzac’, Stephens lists five reasons why Australians should “wind it back, corral it, [and] reduce its proportions”:
“We in Honest History have resurrected the term ‘Anzackery’ to apply to Anzac in extremis – overblown, jingoistic, pompous commemoration or celebration, often with a money-making element. Anzac often topples over into Anzackery…we should insist on ‘defining a singular Australia rather than acknowledging that there are many Australias. This, after all, is a nation that defies neat encapsulation.’
As in this case, the left-wing commentariat often gets a few small things right, and mixes lies with half-truths. There is a legitimate space for historical enquiry into separating mythology from the historical record, as well as frank debate about the allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds into historical commemoration, but this is not the central aim here. Instead, it is to attempt to normalise the suicidal view that war is evil and worthy of shame, that nations are morally bankrupt for excluding the other, and that the highest moral good is to give away one’s national inheritance for a quick moral high.
Political scientist David Stephens invokes the shocking idea that nations renew themselves through obligations passed between its past and future members:
Senator Michael Ronaldson is the current Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of Anzac. The Minister spoke to the NSW Conference of the RSL in June and he said this: “2014 to 2018 means that you and I have another opportunity to teach another generation of young Australians what their obligations are. And if we do not do so ladies and gentlemen, then we have failed them and we have failed ourselves.” The implication is that freedom, ‘paid for in blood’, may have to be redeemed in similar fashion in the future. That, it seems, is our legacy to future generations: the expectation that honouring the war dead of the past – carrying the torch – requires the preparedness to become the war dead of the future.
This fundamental law of life – that life will feed upon life, and that you are only here today because your ancestors cared enough to fight to pass on their genes through the most arduous and barbaric conditions, may be upsetting to new-agers who wish to imagine that they have no particular responsibility to those who came before them, or to those who will inherit the future. Here, the attitude of the first ‘me’ generation – the baby boomers – is evidenced.
Pausing to appreciate the extent to which so many actively work to undermine a narrative of national self-defence and sacrifice, it becomes clear that no other culture but the Western shares this pathological, racially tinged self-loathing. This is the real death-cult: that one free to self-actualise and pursue one’s path of choice, bound by nothing but one’s own desire. That one is not a link in the chain of life that has sustained and shaped itself over millenia, but rather a special snowflake who has decided that violence is abhorrent and unacceptable.
Fortunately, there are those who have retained a vestige of that spirit – the will to live – and will not be moved by pathetic appeals to moral convenience and pacifism. Fifty years ago, the same individuals would have been dismissed as cowards and draft dodgers, and been thrown into prison. Today, they are rewarded with honorary degrees, plum speaking gigs and retire-in-the-job public service committee chairs.
1. Mervyn F. Bendle’s speech at the most recent Quadrant dinner, April 22, 2015, when his book, Anzac and Its Enemies: The History War on Australia’s National Identity). https://quadrant.org.au/opinion/qed/2015/04/anzacs-determined-foes/
2. Critical theory: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory/
McKenna on our shameful past:
Anzac day should be for all Australians