Thursday, June 18, 2020

Statues, monuments and the need for real action

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley

The destruction of the statue of Edward Colston (1636-1721) in Bristol as part of  Black Lives Matter protests is part of a continuing process of destruction or removal of historical monuments that interfere with current sensibilities. By all accounts, Colston was a man who contributed greatly to Bristol and to philanthropic more broadly. Some of his foundations survive to the present time. He also made money from the slave trade, money that helped support his later philanthropy.  

As an historian, I may bewail actions such as the removal of the Colston monument. However, both the creation and destruction of monuments are political acts that form part of history. I am defining political acts in the broadest sense to include religious institutions and actions. 

In a very real sense, there is no distinction between the destruction of Buddhist relics by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the destruction of cultural heritage by ISIS, the dissolution and destruction of the monasteries by Henry VIII, or the removal of the Colston monument today.  I am sure that you could give many more examples.

I recognise that this may cause some people to bristle. How can you compare the destruction of monuments and historical relics by ISIS or the Taliban with removal of statues associated with slavery or the American Civil War?  That's crap, some might say. 

It's simple. In both cases you have monuments, structures that reflected beliefs and values at the time. Now you have a different set of beliefs that dictate destruction or removal. In both cases, you are dealing with absolutes. How one responds to those absolutes depends upon one's personal views and values. And that is affected by time. 

A Pharaoh may have been evil, a king evil, but we still flock to see their sites. Indeed, the worse they are the more the more we come. The further back in time things go, the easier it is for us to do this. Monument destruction occurs when monuments or sites gain current relevance. The Buddhist monuments may have been ancient, but to the Taliban they represented a current threat, something that had to be removed. To the demonstrators who want the statues removed, they represent symbols of a past that needs to be expunged. 

History just is, a far country that we seek to understand. Historiography, the writing of history, is always entangled in the present. If you look at national historical narratives across the globe you will find that they reflect national perspectives in ways that can confuse and distract to the point that the same events might have occurred on different planets. Even the "facts" themselves, things that you might think were certain, become blurred. 

The same things hold for particular historical schools and movements such as the debate about recent colonialism and the post colonial world. Other examples include childhood, the family, feminism and the role of women, family life or the sometimes convoluted debate linked to class and power structures. 

As an historian, I find the varied debate is helpful in highlighting different aspects of the human past, although it's difficult too. The history I am writing now is very different from that I was writing thirty years ago. Now I struggle to work out how I might fit all the new bits in!

At a personal level, I do struggle with the continuing changes that have taken place over my life time. I can agree with people on particular issues, but also reject the way that those different bits are strung together in new purportedly historical narratives that I think are fundamentally wrong. 

This links back to the question of monuments. The debate here has, to my mind, only a limited connection to history.  History is important, but it's really about perceptions and values. This doesn't make it easier to manage, but it does help a little. 

One of the things that has, I suppose, caused me most concern is the polarisation. I am a member of a Facebook group of past and present history students. It's a good group, a civilised group, that plays a significant role in student support where so many students are learning remotely. Yet here the question of statues and other monuments has become so contentious. so issue and value laden, that the administrators have had to terminate one member and then ban statues and monuments as a topic of discussion for the moment. 

I am fortunate that my friendship group spans from the far left to far right. Sometimes that's difficult. Do I let some views go without comment even when I greatly disagree with them?  I have noticed that friends on both sides have started unfriending others who disagree with their views. I have also noticed that one side effect is the hardening of attitudes. As part of this, views that were once peripheral on both left and right are becoming mainstream.

I think that this is unfortunate. It will be no secret that I think that we need a new compact with Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. That requires the capacity to listen, to accept hard truths on both sides. I wonder now if that is possible. Have we become so polarised, so locked into questions of right and wrong, that the twain cannot meet? I fear that might be the case.     

How to handle? 

To begin with, there is no point in getting entangled in macro value debates. The canvas is so broad, so value and emotion laden, that much discussion and argument lacks actionable content. Better to disentangle and deal with specific issues. 

Consider this. Most people agree that Aboriginal incarceration is a problem, with 28% of adult prisoners from indigenous backgrounds coming from 3.3% of the population. So what can be done? 

The first step is to actually scope the problem and this involves statistics. If we look at the statistics, we find that the growth in ATSI prison numbers is especially concentrated in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, Queensland to a lesser degree. These are also the areas that seem to have had the greatest focus on law and order, on things like truth in sentencing, three strikes policy. These things affect socially deprived communities in particular.

If I'm right, is is possible to change the basis approach to law, criminology and incarceration? If we cannot do that, how do we reduce the vulnerability of ATSI people to the application of the laws. Is that even possible given views and attitudes in the broader community in each jurisdiction? 

We have to ask these questions. They are hard questions. We cannot answer them by pap, I say pap advisedly. Arguments based on generalisations, on value assertions, just won't wash. At best, they may provide a climate for reform. At worst, they may actually impede reform. We actually need action, Do we want to reduce Aboriginal incarceration rates, recognising that this may be a slow process? 

I don't have answers to this. I just want to see us taking action, 



Saturday, June 06, 2020

Saturday Morning Musings - living in a random world

I was searching for an image around the idea of a random world and found this image from North Coast Rep.

We do seem to be living in a random world. In January things still seemed stable, predictable to some degree. Here in Australia we had suffered first from drought and then major fires, but while they were major problems they were understandable, even predictable. Our various governments responded to the problems, with the focus then shifting to recovery.

Internationally, the difficulties associated with shifting global fault lines including the rise of China and a sometimes erratic US president were constant but familiar. The world's trouble spots - Yemen, ISIS in Africa, Brexit, Syria as examples - were known and sometimes reported. 

All this was swept away by covid-19. Suddenly, there seemed to be just one over-whelming dominant topic of conversation. Everything else vanished from coverage. Every certainty that we had vanished in the midst of shutdowns and change. 

At a personal level, the things that I had been doing (and valuing) to start a new life in Armidale stopped. My history course was suspended, local organisations closed, the new human interaction that I so valued stopped. 

Perhaps the biggest biggest blow was the decision by Australian Community Media to close or suspend so many papers. This affected me at a very direct and personal level. I had to work out what would happen with my columns. As someone who has written on the history of the newspaper press, as  someone who has had family connections with the papers and knew their importance, the closure deeply saddened me. I was especially saddened by what I saw as another element in the continuing destruction of the social and community infrastructure, the broader linkages in an area that I love and to which I have devoted a considerable proportion of my life.

The sudden closure of the Armidale Express office is a trivial thing in a global or even an Australian context, but is deeply personal. It happened just so quickly. What do you do with all the stuff in the office including back copies of the paper? What should be saved, or should it all be sent to the tip? 

Fortunately and thanks to local editor Laurie Bullock and my colleagues at the Armidale & District Historical Society, God bless them,  the newspaper archive was carried across the road and installed in the History Society meeting room. Now the bound copies of the paper from 1970 survive, at least for the present. But what do we do with them? The Regional Archives are shut because of covid-19  and have in any case been under pressure following the University of New England's decision to vacate the old Armidale Teacher's College site.  The Archive was struggling to maintain the collection it had and had to turf metres of documents. 

I accept that I am lucky.

 In some parts of the world, "seniors" were not allowed to leave home because of the risk to their health. At least in NSW, the advice was advisory, so we ancients could make our own decisions. I live in a comfortable house with a backyard and nearby walking tracks. Some of my friends did not have these options. I am also computer literate and was able to shift things on line. 

Mind you, I have still faced a learning curve here, one that I am still to master. I am not into Zoom and next week I am meant to participate in a podcast. This requires me to download a new app onto my mobile and then learn how to use it. I know that I need too, but do not feel confident enough!

I said that I am lucky. The social and economic disruption forced on many has been enormous. 

Consider a young person enrolled at university who has lost her casual work and is now living at home with her parents. She can't go to classes, although on-line may be available. She is suffering loss of human contact, loss of independence. She fears for her future. Will there be jobs when she finishes?

These are first world problems compared with many countries where people are starving as a consequence of shut-downs, but they are still very real to the individuals affected.  Perhaps it's not surprising that there has been so much kick-back against social distancing and restrictions. 

In Monday Forum - what are the possible longer term changes from the covid-19 pandemic? I wondered about the real changes that might flow from covid-19. I suppose that my thinking here was Australian-centric. Globally, the economic effects flowing from the pandemic are likely to to be most important. My concern was more micro, the the extent to which the shut-downs and consequent responses would have long term effects on the way we live and work or whether things would simply snap back to the way they were as things improved. I suspect more of the second. 

While covid-19 was still raging, the death of George Floyd at police hands and the subsequent protests largely swept covid-19 off the front pages in many countries. I doubt that anybody could see the video footage of his death and not be moved. This was another of those random events that acted as a catalyst. If Mr Floyd had not been killed in that way, if the police had stopped, if his death had not been recorded, then the protests would not have happened. 

The media I generally follow is very Western-centric. Indonesia is Australia's nearest neighbour and yet there has been little coverage here of events in that country. You have to read the English language Jakarta Globe or Jakarta Post to find coverage of covid-19. Interestingly, there appears to have been very little coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests. The same holds for the Hindustan Times or for some of the other papers I have looked at. 

 Given the absence of international reporting outside covid-19 or the Black Lives Matter protests, you could be forgiven for thinking that all other matters were in abeyance unless they had direct domestic effects. However, if you dig down you find that other things are happening. The problem is to find the information required to make sensible judgements on their implications. For the moment, they remain random activities, some of which may come to bite us.