A tyranny of memory?

It’s not often history grabs more than a small slice of the public attention, but this week it did. The incident said something interesting about the relationship between the state and the past.

Military historian David Horner this week revisited the meaning for Australia of the Kokoda campaign. By way of background, what can be said uncontroversially is that in the second half of 1942 Australian and Japanese troops fought a series of engagements on the Kokoda Track (or Trail) in New Guinea. It can also be said uncontroversially that public memory (that is, that of the public generally) holds that this represented Australia holding off an inevitable Japanese invasion, while the preponderance of professional historians consider that there was no Japanese plan for an invasion at that time and that Japanese consideration of an invasion represented little more than thought balloons.

What has been revealing about this latest face-off between these world views is the relationship between the lay public and this particular aspect of the past.

I think it can fairly be said that the reaction from the public, or (which is not quite the same thing) the reaction from the sections of the press which love to help the public feel outraged, was resentment. The Herald Sun’s editorial made little effort to engage with the historyical question, merely saying grudgingly that

Military historian Professor David Horner has every right to opine that Australia has developed a tendency to exaggerate the significance of our country’s military campaigns, including the Kokoda battle.

It’s his belief, and freedom of speech was among the democratic values more than 100,000 Diggers have given their lives to protect.

Mr Derryn Hinch, on radio station 3AW responded with contempt

I guess I should assume that the Japanese bombers who hit Darwin were really lost and their real target was Argentina. That the mini-sub found in Sydney Harbour was a misguided tourist. That the Battle of the Coral Sea was really an America’s Cup event. And that currency found in Japan to be used in Australia post-invasion was really Monopoly money for post-war entertainment. …

At the weekend some proud World War II veterans – 90 years old and older – were in Egypt commemorating their brave mates who died in the desert in the Battle of El Alamein 70 years ago.

Don’t tell the professor. He probably thinks they were playing in a sand pit

The lay public’s own reaction was even less restrained. In the Herald Sun’s letters page on 23 October 2012 one writer said that “[t]o revise history now and claim there was no danger of an invasion … is an insult to the memory of those Diggers whose courageous gallantry maintained the freedom we enjoy today”. Another asked “How dare anyone undermine or underestimate (sic) those of our Australian defence (sic) who were serving Australia at Kokoda”

Writers with the benefit of online anonymity were even more vitriolic. On 3AW’s website one writer described Horner as a revisionist, a term usually reserved for the likes of the Holocaust-denying David Irving. On Sydney’s radio station 2UE, “Peter” said –

Yet again history being re-written by some dumb arsed propeller head hoping that the reaction will boast sales and try to legitimatise his misguided take on history! God save us from the PC loony left!

And “Fuji” said

On 19 February 1942 Darwin itself was bombed. Japanese fighters and bombers attacked the port and shipping in the harbour twice during the day, killing 252 Allied service personnel and civilians!! Evidently the $$$Professor David Horner is obviously talking through his dumb arse.

The fundamental problem is of course that Professor Horner’s assessment is based on the documentary record, and the public response is based, in essence, on the invasion story as something akin to an article of faith.

The more interesting light is thrown by the public reaction as a foundational form of a more troubling current phenomenon: the use of the machinery of the state to create a definitive history, where historical argument alone may not be able to stand on its own. One can see this trend in the attempts to secure a pardon for the Australian war criminal Harry Morant. One can also see it in the review by the Supreme Court of Victoria of the trial of Colin Ross, convicted in 1922 of the murder of a child, long after the trial and appellate judges, witnesses and legal representatives were unable to speak for themselves.

The creation of “endorsed” histories, it seems to me, treat the documentary record, and any differing analysis to be extracted from it, as something to be pushed down a memory hole. For this reason, reading the responses to Horner’s theories, I wondered if some aspiring politician may feel that there was mileage in pressing for, as Prime Minister Keating perhaps began to do, an “endorsed history” of the events of 1942. At which point, I had the uncomfortable sensation of hearing voices insist: “Oceania is at war with Eastasia. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia”.

On Spanish and English

This was a letter I sent to a couple of newspapers in Arizona in connection with the matter of Alejandrina Cabrera, a US citizen who was deemed ineligible for public office due to be principally fluent in Spanish rather than English.  This is a matter where there’s room for a range of views; in my particular case I thought it was more interesting for the light on the debate which can be shed by a knowledge of history.

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Alejandrina Cabrera’s recent barring from running for San Luis city council on the grounds of speaking insufficient English  intrigued me.  I am presently  researching American legal attitudes towards citizenship after the Revolution.  History would require only that a public official speak enough English to discharge their duties before allowing them to exercise that particular right of citizenship.  After the Revolution, American courts focused on concrete realities in these questions.  In Cummington v Springfield (1824), a redcoat who was captured during the Revolution and after release remained in America, thereby became a citizen.  In Caignet v Pettit (1795), a Frenchman who did not support the French Republic and settled in the US ceased to be a French subject.  In each case, the practical realities were critical.  By extension, while a prospective public official like Ms Cabrera should understand enough English to discharge her duties, no higher standard should be required.

A use of history to illuminate the present

This piece was submitted (unsuccessfully) to a couple of French newspapers.  It looked at connections between present criminal justice debates in Australia and Ancien Regime criminal justice. In this case, I consider that the past threw a clear light on the present.


On peut dire qu’un spectre hante l’Australie: le spectre de la Révolution française.  Si le moment clef de la Révolution a été la rejection des trois états de la France et leur supercession par l’Assemblée Nationale, peut-être le moment clef pour l’Australie moderne se montrer a ce moment, quand on peut dire que le tiers etat paraît devenir incapable de gouverner.

Cette possibilité presente par voie d’un meurtrier.  Le 9 août 1987 un ancien soldat, M. Julian Knight, a fait un massacre dans le cité de Melbourne.  Sept personnes ont été tuées; 19 ont souffert des blessures.  Devant la Cour Suprême de l’état de Victoria, M. Knight s’est declaré coupable des meurtres et des tentatives de meurtre.  Le 10 novembre 1988 M. le Juge Hampel lui a prononcer qu’il serait imprisonner pour toute sa vie, mais qu’il peut être relâcher dans le communauté apres qu’il a servi 27 années.

Ces 27 années sont presque passées.  En août 2012, apres la Conseil qui peut approuver son relâchment a refusé son application sortir de la prison, M. Knight a declaré qu’il appellera au Cour Suprême.  Un avocat très distingué, M. Robert Richter, a dit qu’il est prêt lui representer.

Cet affaire a été noté par un présentateur du radio, M. Derryn Hinch.  Ses auditeurs ont exprimés leur horreur face à la situation.  Sur le site web du station de radio 3AW, M. Richter a été appelé ‘lâche’ par “Mandy”, qui paraît ignorant qu’un avocat – au système de droit commun – doit réprésenter chaque personne qu’il peut aider.  “Lily” a declarée “rétablir la peine de mort et le juger à nouveau”.  Et “Appauled” a dit “j’espère qu’un membre de la famille d’une victime met une balle dans Richter et Knight”.  Le quotidien Herald-Sun demandait que le Parlement amend la loi afin de garantir que Knight rester prisonnier.  Et le Premier Ministre du Victoria, M. Ted Baillieu a dit que le gouvernement considera les mesures a ce but.  Les demandes par ces citoyens pour l’emprisonnement législative de M. Knight ne pas tiennes comptes, il paraît, qu’un gouvernement qui peut imprisonner un meurtrier seulement au nom de la sécurité publique (et pas en conséquence du procés criminel), peut aussi imprisonner un journaliste, ou un membre du Parlement, ou bien “M. Dupont” pour la même raison.  Il n’y a pas de raison pour qu’ils le pense: Statistiquement, 46% de la population australienne est fonctionnellement incapable de lire.  Donc, comment reconnâitre-t-ils la lettre de cachet, quand ils ne peuvent pas lire de l’ancien regime?  Comment reconnaitre-t-ils l’homme au masque de fer, quand ils croient que l’Alexandre Dumas joue pour Olympique de Marseilles?  Il semble que, en Australie au moins, il y a un déficit chez le tiers état de la capacité à participer dans l’administration de la patrie. 

On veut dire, toutefois, que jusqu’à présent personne n’a demandé “Quoi sont le premier et le deuxième états?”

On Civil War Anniversaries

I initially wrote this piece as a wave of Civil War anniversaries unfolded in mid-2012.  My own feeling is that one of the strengths of American discourse is the importance in it of history; unfortunately this is also one of its weaknesses: there is a real tendency for it to become what Paul Cohen called “History as Myth”; and in particular a prefiguration of whatever debates happen to be current at the time of writing.  This, I think, does a disservice to the men and women caught up in the actual event, and this piece was a reaction against that tendency.

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In 2011 the long 150th anniversary of the Civil War began to unfold.  This year alone commemorates the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy, the Battle of Shiloh, and the appointment of Robert E. Lee to command of the Army of Northern Virginia.

But along with the lists of battles and elections, movements and proclamations, the coming of the long anniversary is an chance to rethink the war itself.
The War’s history includes a seemingly unresolveable debate.  Was it all or chiefly about slavery (as Professor James Loewen argues)?  Was it a crusade against self government below the Mason-Dixon line (as the League of the South would have it).  Both perspectives not only miss the mark, but misrepresent it.  One can argue that the causes of the war, and the incentives that perpetuated it, are fundamentally unknowable.
Why unknowable?  Because motivations are almost always unknowable and unfixed.  Granted, the Confederacy’s legislatures and secession conventions made declarations of reasons for withdrawing from the Union.  But how far did those declarations reflect the true aspirations of the members.  Did a particular delegate actually endorse states rights?  Was another motivated by slavery?  Was a third trying to perpetuate the legacy of the Revolution?  Did others want only to stay on what appeared the right side of history?

The same question arises about what kept the conflict going.  Let’s assume that the young recruit in the 14th Maine Infantry enlisted to stamp out slavery.  Did he keep that passion beyond a few weeks?  Did he stay through the campaigns in Louisiana and Virginia simply out of loyalty to his friends or for the prospect of pay?  The letters and diaries of famous and obscure participants offer a window into their thinking and motivations from time to time.  There always remains, though, the tantalising prospect of more precisely knowing how these shifted day to day and year to year.
Rethinking the war this way draws into focus a more finely woven picture of its causes and drivers.  But its merit goes further.  It spares the long-dead participants from the stilling of their stories and songs and experiences.  It prevents the present from too-readily putting its own words and thoughts in their mouths.  Making the war “all about preserving slavery” converts every lowly member of the 51st Georgia Infantry into a collaborator in a vast atrocity.  Seeing it as a crusade against a too-free people forces every young adventurer of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers to goosestep into a Dixie Poland.
The Civil War need not, and perhaps should not, be treated as a battle of ideas and abstractions with contemporary relevance.  Compassion says that it should also be treated as a conflict of people with virtues and follies and complexities.  Reconceiving it this way spares its participants from unwittingly articulating virtues they may not have held and ideas for which they may not have died.  And it may save a fascinating historical event from being eternally a stage on which to play out the debates of the present.