Rewriting history

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The second Ashes test played at Lord’s has been and gone. It was a great contest, played down to the wire, with Australia winning. But the game will always be remembered for Jonny Bairstow’s dismissal, out stumped when he wandered off down the pitch before the over was called. If you haven’t heard all about it you’re either not a cricket fan or you’ve spent the last week or so under a rock. If you’re interested there’s plenty of material to be found online.

The third umpire ruled that, according to the rules of the game, Bairstow was out but that didn’t stop a flurry of cricket writers, politicians, and just about everybody else adding their two bob’s worth, often citing the dismissal as not in keeping with ‘the spirit of the game’. Whatever that means. In the context of this post, though, it’s a good example of how facts are twisted, ignored, or rewritten to suit a narrative.

Many people poo-poo history as a lesser discipline. Who cares about the past? But if we don’t understand our past, it’s hard to map our future. In many places around the world history is being rewritten to suit whoever is in power. In Russia, Stalin is being rehabilitated. Russian historian Irina Sherbakova writes in the Guardian:

“Vladimir Putin’s rise to power came accompanied by a new version of patriotism relying on “heroic” and “bright” aspects of the Soviet past. An image of Stalin as a strong leader who had ensured victory in the second world war and led a Soviet superpower re-emerged. Television propaganda again worked hard to create that image. The millions who perished in waves of political repression were pushed to the margins of collective consciousness.” [source]

In China, the repression of the student uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989 is never spoken about. Any attempt to commemorate the event is brutally repressed. Then there’s this:

“One ideological deviation that Xi has condemned frequently is “historical nihilism” – criticism of the officially approved version of the party’s history, which removes almost all attacks on events such as the famine that killed millions in the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62 and greatly underplays the traumas caused by the Cultural Revolution.” [source]

Even in Japan the past is being brushed under the carpet. Akira Kawasaki , a member of the Executive Committee of the Tokyo-based non-governmental organization Peace Boat, talked with Global Times reporter Xia Wenxin.

The government of Japan has systematically erased the description of Japan’s brutal and criminal acts to its neighbors in the lead-up to and during WWII in history textbooks, pushed by right-wing politicians. So has the mass media, which tends to disseminate provocative statements and comments by historical revisionists over such issues as the Nanjing Massacre or military sex slavery practices, known as “comfort women.” These have made Japanese people, especially youth, unaware of the basic facts in history that Japan was the aggressor in WWII. This is causing problems for Japan to promote mutual understanding and friendship with its neighboring nations.” [source]

That’s just a handful. History – at least the stuff taught to children at school – dictates how a nation sees itself. The discussion (if you can call it that) about the Aboriginal Voice to parliament is a case in point. When I was at school we learned very little about the Aboriginal people and certainly nothing about some of the terrible things done to them by the white settlers. That is being redressed, which is good. These days most Australians think Aboriginal people should have been treated better.

But we need to consider the facts.

Eminent historian Geoffrey Blainey wrote an article in the Australian recently. I think it should be mandatory reading for everybody, especially members of parliament. You can read the whole article here.

“Inside the Uluru statement, two major accusations are expressed in one pithy sentence: “In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard.” The Aboriginal leaders who met at Uluru believed their kinsfolk were not even deemed worthy of being counted – until the referendum of 1967 raised their political status. …. If true, the accusation is a serious blemish on the Australian nation during the past century and a half. But it is not true.”

“There were precise censuses even before 1901, thus contradicting Albanese and the Uluru leaders. For example, South Australia, holding a census on Sunday, April 2, 1871, recorded the exact districts and towns where more than 5000 Aboriginal men and women lived.” [source]

Blainey points out that although many Aboriginal people died after the British arrived most of the deaths were the result of diseases to which the locals had no immunity, not from wars. The same thing happened in many other countries when European settlers arrived. 

And far from being voiceless, in the late 1850s, in the three largest Australian colonies, most Aboriginal men could vote. A man of Aboriginal and convict ancestry won the rural seat of Young in NSW in 1889. This at a time when most of the people of Europe did not have a vote. In fact, Blainey cites the example of an Aboriginal woman turning out to vote in South Australia in 1896. Australian women were given the right to vote in Federal elections in 1901. Women in the UK had to wait until 1928 for full female suffrage.

One last thing. Bruce Pascoe in his book, Dark Emu, argues that Aboriginal Australia was the first real democracy in the world and for 80,000 years a haven of peace and prosperity. In fact, the book is on the school curriculum. Professor Blainey describes the work as ‘nonsensical’. It has been well and truly debunked in Professor Peter Sutton and Dr Keryn Walshe’s book, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers: The Dark Emu Debate. There’s nothing at all wrong with being expert, skillful hunter-gatherers and that’s what the Aboriginal people were. Here’s an accessible article on this discussion. To me, teaching Dark Emu in schools is an example of rewriting history to suit a modern narrative.

History – true history – is important.

If you don’t know where you came from it’s hard to know where you’re going.

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