National history is the story that binds ‘us who make up the nation’ into a single entity with a collective memory. It has a purpose and as such we can choose what historical events and realities to put into that story, whilst forgetting the rest. Of the four main current contenders for our national history, I think we should pick ‘Advance Australia Fair’ as the only truly useful one.
In nearly all Western countries, national history binds those who live somewhere with a story of what those who previously lived there were up to, even when the ancestors came from lots of other places. This is particularly true of Australians, some 30% of whom were not born in Australia and some 70% of whom will have one or more grandparents who were not born in Australia. But it also holds for the history of Great Britain, the USA, France, and even Germany: their national histories are not the histories of the ancestors of those who are now British, American, French, or German.
It is crucial for national historians to realise that it is irrelevant whether national history is accurate or balanced. A national history unites those who live in a place into harmony and productivity. We are free to accentuate whatever aspect of the past we need for the purposes of binding the current population in a fruitful story; free to ignore and forget the rest. It is said that winners write their history. So let us be winners and choose wisely.
When it comes to the history of Australia, one can currently choose four stories with some historical truth to them.
Those who wish to see Australia as the vessel for first-Australians can rightfully point to the 40,000 years in which around a million Aboriginals (with varying ancestries and waves of conquest themselves) lived here. In terms of life-years, the human history of the first-Australians represents 99.9% of the history of Australia. Within this ‘dream time’ history, the 0.1% of human-years that has occurred in the last few centuries merely represents an invasion of others, a blip.
Those who wish to bind current Australians to a Christian guilt-trip can rightfully point to the near annihilation (by disease and design) of the prior population, followed by 2 centuries of Anglo-Saxon dominance that had little regard for other cultures and has successfully replicated itself onto all newcomers from other places. Though it is of course textbook racism to blame white newcomers for white guilt of an earlier wave of white people, one might argue that wherever one’s ancestors truly came from, it is a fair bet that they will have replaced, murdered, and interbred-via-rape several previous population at some point. That assessment includes first-Australians, by the way. So the determined guilt-historian might as well blame all Australians for a genocide as a symbol for what some ancestors will have been up to somewhere.
Those who wish to depict Australia as a place of frontiers and a welcoming land to all productive newcomers can pick the era of the new waves of migrants in the 19th, 20th, and 21st century. For the ancestor-years-lived-in-Australia of 95% of the population, it would indeed be a fair description to say that Australia was an unknown land the ancestors had to discover and get used to, a new country born in exploration and still a place of wonder for the latest newcomers. The vast majority of ancestor-years lived in Australia will be better described by wonder and making-a-go rather than the guilt-trip, simply because the vast majority arrived so recently (the guilt-trip bit was a blip within a blip). So one can point to the welcoming national anthem and to current citizen ceremonies as reflective of the experienced national history of Australia.
Those who want to prepare Australia for future wars and tie the population into stories of blind obedience to authority, can point to the world wars when droves of young Australians died for the whims of its leaders. They can similarly point to the Boer wars beforehand, and the Korean/Iraq wars afterwards. The young Australians and their families involved in those wars wanted to believe their involvement was meaningful, as do the current families of servicemen and women. So the current war-mongers-in-charge have historical precedent on their side when they perpetuate a 150 years long ancestry of blind obedience and faith in the mythologies of those in power. That too is a fair reflection of the current population and can contend for the title of ‘national history’.
So you have four histories to choose from, each with some historical accuracy for those who insist on such things. Each is a perversion and gross simplification of our lives and that of our ancestors. Indeed, none of the four captures the mundane realities of the 100,000 years that our human ancestors have lived, for each four are bombastic myths meant to prop up the egos of either the story teller or the audience. That is not a criticism, but we should dispense with what the ego of the story tellers dictate and choose on the basis of our combined egos.
Personally, I think the ‘we are a welcoming frontier country’ history is the one that best serves Australians’ current interests. It is the nicest of the national stories on offer, the most inclusive and the most generous to the incoming waves of migrants and the vast majority of those who live here.
I thus reject the war-monger stories now told about the wars, as well as the ‘born in sin’ stories, and even the ‘dream time’ stories. I do not reject them because they are untrue, or because they lack a constituency of people who believe them and want to believe them. I reject them because they are divisive. No more than slivers of these stories should be in our education curricula.
The dream time story is not useful because too few can identify with it. The guilt trip is not useful because no nation wants to celebrate their ancestors as genocidal egotists and rapists. The blind obedience story is the story of mental retards who lack the courage and capacity to stand on their own two feet, and is thus also a demeaning national history.
Advance Australia Fair, I say, from all the lands on earth we come. Ignore the other stories on offer, I say, for their purpose is to demean us, not unite us.
Paul Frijters is a professor of wellbeing economics at the London School of Economics.