Category Archives: historiography

Reading several books at once may do your head in…

… or it may set up a rather interesting and unexpected harmonic.

The three books in question are:

All three are well worth reading. 

I give Armstrong five stars more as a history than as a work that is entirely convincing theologically – it is if you agree with her, which I am inclined to do, but even so I still take the Axial Age hypothesis with a grain or two of salt. What is good in this wide-ranging work is the fresh insight it has afforded me into unexpected and often hitherto unexplored parallels in the thinkers and prophets of the ancient world in Greece, India, the Middle East and China. Armstrong is no fundamentalist; her very respectable scepticism on the historicity of much of the Bible as “fact” bears witness to that. On the other hand, her opposition of mythos and logos will not appeal to everyone, even if I think there is much to be said for it so long as one realises it has the weakness of all such dichotomies. Religion to Armstrong is not well served by being treated as logos. Paradoxically that is what fundamentalists tend to do. Mythos reminds me more than anything of John Keats and “negative capability.”

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

More on Armstrong: Heavy-hitter stands up for God and religion; Richard Dawkins vs. Karen Armstrong: "Where Does Evolution Leave God?"; Man vs. God – the Armstrong/Dawkins “debate” which was reprinted in The Australian this weekend: it mostly shows two contrasting sensibilities, in my opinion.

I repeat: Armstrong is an excellent historian of ideas.

D Michael Lindsay is an excellent ethnologist of religion. I very much agree with this review.

Summary: This author spoke with more than 300 leaders in politics, business, academia, media and entertainment between 2003 and 2006. All were self-identified evangelicals, a category Lindsay defines as "someone who believes (1) the Bible is the supreme authority for religious belief and practice, (2) that he or she has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and (3) that one should take a transforming activist approach to faith." His intent was to study the historical events and social forces that have facilitated the movement of evangelicals into prominent mainstream positions and roles during the past forty or fifty years. He focuses on four broad sectors reflective of modern life in America – politics, higher education, entertainment and business. How did evangelical influences come to wield any kind of power in this democracy, given the small percentage of adherents relative to that of the greater population of more casual believers?

Lindsay’s essential answer is that evangelicals have chosen to actively apply themselves (through both their labor and their not inconsiderable resources) to the job of ensuring that their understanding of Christian behavior and values seed the future direction of American culture and government. In his view, the various groups have accomplished a tremendous amount in politics and education but have had far less impact on the media and entertainment industries. In the corporate environment, he notes that influential business executives seem to put more emphasis on leveraging their faith at levels that don’t necessarily include local churches or parishes tending instead to focus on the parachurch. [Note: I had to look this word up; it refers to bodies that operate outside of and across denominational churches to accomplish specific goals. I gather the word tends to be used chiefly in evangelical circles.]

One of the great strengths of Lindsay’s documentation is that he makes it clear that evangelicals are far from being a monolithic group. Whether talking about specific individuals or evangelical organizations, he makes clear that they are diverse and sometimes accomplish their goals by aligning with clearly different belief sectors, such as the Roman Catholic Church, when necessary to achieve an end. Such alliances don’t always last, for obvious reasons, but the evangelicals have built social relationships and networks that foster the desired end result…

It is “thick description” – far more subtle than the standard rant pro or con religion in US politics. I found it fascinating.

SONY DSC                     Timothy Clack is far younger than I thought! He is “[St Peter’s] College [Oxford] Lecturer in Archaeology and Director of Studies in Archaeology and Anthropology. Tim is an anthropological archaeologist with diverse research and teaching interests. Themes with which he is currently engaged include: archaeology of experience, archaeological mediation, syncretism and religious fusion, anthropology of conflict, and memory and cultural landscapes. He has been fortunate in being able to conduct archaeological and anthropological research in the UK, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Borneo. Timothy is an elected fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Anthropological Institute. He is also holds associate membership of the British Institute in Eastern Africa and the African Studies Centre, University of Oxford.”

He has, however, not been well served by proof-readers – there are quite a few clangers in Ancestral Roots. For example, I am sure Dr Clack knows that T H Huxley is not the same as Aldous Huxley, though they are related.

The book is in the evolutionary biology genre, but ranges much more widely than most. According to Alan Bilsborough in The Times Educational Supplement: “Overall, Ancestral Roots is a fluent and wide-ranging account of the human condition viewed from an evolutionary perspective, although the author’s preaching sometimes obtrudes to interrupt the flow. The text suffers from the selectivity of all such eclectic accounts, and there are sufficient errors of detail in the bits I think I know something about to make me wonder as to the accuracy of those I don’t. In other words, read this book as a stimulating and engaging survey, but don’t take it too seriously as a definitive diagnosis of our current predicament.”  I didn’t mind the preaching, personally. Loved what he says about ethnocentrism, religion, and co-operation – just to name a few areas.


Miscellaneous notes

It was a toss-up whether to note these here or on Twitter. Not that any of them are trivial, but you can’t do a major post on everything, can you?

1. from The Jakarta Post

Leaders of various religious groups as well as anti-violence activists held two separate mass prayers on Monday at the site of the Jakarta hotel bombings, which killed nine people and injured more than 50 on Friday.

Members of the Indonesian Anti-Violence Community, including lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis, Yenni Wahid, Wimar Witoelar and Ayu Utami, came to the site of the bombings to pray for the victims.

Soon after, religious leaders led another mass prayer at the site.

They included Hasyim Muzadi, chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama Islamic council, Rev. Petrus from the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI), representative of the Hindu community Anak Agung Ngurah Ugrasena and Maha Biksu Dutavira, who came to represent Buddhist.

"Although the situation is overwhelming, people must remain alert but not panic," Rev. Petrus said, as quoted by state news agency Antara.

Suicide bombers attacked the JW Marriot and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Mega Kuningan, South Jakarta, on Friday.

2. from The Sydney Morning Herald: The usual terrorism suspects moved from JI to the Noordin network.

In the aftermath of last Friday’s terrorist bombings in Jakarta, numerous commentators have identified Jemaah Islamiah as the organisation most likely to have committed the attacks. One senior security analyst, for example, told ABC radio that the attacks showed that "JI was back in business".

Other terrorism researchers such as Sidney Jones have argued that the jihadist group led by Noordin Mohammed Top should head the list of suspects.

Of course, there is much that is unclear about the details of the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotel bombings, and firmer analysis needs to await further information about the identity of those involved and the methods used. But I would like to set out reasons why we should differentiate between JI and the Noordin group, and why it is more plausible to regard Noordin’s group as the prime suspect rather than JI.

JI is not a monolithic organisation. Since the late 1990s it has experienced divisions over how it should conduct jihad. For militants within JI, such as Noordin, Hambali and Mukhlas, the fatwas of Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s declaring it an obligation for Muslims to attack the US and its allies resounded like a clarion call. They were impatient for South-East Asian Muslims to strike a blow against what they saw as Islam’s greatest foes. For more moderate elements of JI, bin Laden’s appeals and the subsequent activities of al-Qaeda were either of little relevance for Indonesia or ran contrary to established Islamic law on jihad…

Such specific details are clearly important to any informed response to events such as these. They tend to get lost when we make blanket generalisations about “Muslims”.

3. SMH again: Karl Konrad – Say hello to our new economic slaves: foreign students.

Karl Konrad “is a migration agent. He was formerly a police officer and whistleblower.”

… Nearly 15 years ago, as a young police constable, I wrote a long report on police corruption to the Victorian ombudsman, Barry Perry. That report sparked one of the biggest investigations into police corruption ever seen in this country. I went to the ombudsman because I couldn’t trust the police or the government of the day. They both had something to lose if the truth came out. Never underestimate the power of a good ombudsman.

Students also need an ombudsman independent of state and federal governments. Proper investigations can get to the bottom of mistreatment or, at worst, outright corruption. Students must be assured the Immigration Department will take no action to deport them. Instead, if necessary, they should be placed out of harm’s way into an alternative reputable education provider at no cost to themselves where they can continue pursuing their dreams.

No one is saying all foreign students have negative experiences here. But now the cat is out let’s keep it out and shake this system free of corruption.

4. SMH: Gerard Henderson smells left-wing bias.

He has the nose for it. 😉

If you want to work out who won what was billed as "the culture wars" during the time of the Howard government, tune into SBS One at 8.30 pm tonight. This is the first episode of the three-part series titled Liberal Rule: The Politics that Changed Australia, which is produced by Nick Torrens Film Productions and written by Nick Torrens and Garry Sturgess.

Liberal Rule is a shocker and a disgrace. Torrens obtained interviews with key figures in the former government – including John Howard, Peter Costello, Alexander Downer and Peter Reith along with some former Liberal Party staffers. They were all identified according to their relationship to Howard or the government he led.

Sturgess had been the senior researcher on the successful ABC TV documentary Labor in Power series, which aired in 1993. It is likely that those supportive of the Howard government who were interviewed for Liberal Rule anticipated a similar style of documentary. In Labor in Power, the key figures in the governments led by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were allowed to state their case and viewers were allowed to draw their own conclusions.

Not so in Liberal Rule. Torrens put it in a directors’ statement which accompanies the SBS publicity: "Being aware that interviews with our `cast’ of John Howard and his senior cabinet figures would elicit recollections with an eye to history’s favourable view, the crucial decision was how to present a balanced picture . . . Garry and I sought an atmosphere of co-operative engagement. To this we would add the necessary layers of subtext."

You can say that again…

I think SBS viewers are probably bright enough to distinguish fact from opinion. Anyway, do we really want hagiography?

5. Cricket

Did something happen? 😉


Jim Belshaw’s new project

I was fascinated by Jim’s post today.

Yesterday morning I finished my target 300 words on the current book. This was written between the time I left the house and my arrival at Parramatta.

I was trying to think through the the impact of the arrival of Europeans on Aboriginal thought. To start getting my mind around this, I took the device of a young man of the Daingatti Aboriginal language group. This group occupied the Macleay Valley.

Sounds like a worthwhile exercise to me. I’d buy one…

The exercise in empathy is also producing a rethink. I can recall wandering around the city trying to visualise what it must have been like for my convict ancestor Jacob in 1821 to around 1840, as follower’s of Ninglun’s Specials may recall. It’s good to do. Except I wasn’t writing a book.


Bad Archaeology

And is there a lot of it around! Bad Archaeology explains itself thus:

We are a couple of real archaeologists fed up with the distorted view of the past that passes for knowledge in popular culture. We are unhappy that journalists with no knowledge of the methods, aims, techniques and theories of real archaeology can sell hundreds of times more books than real archaeologists. We do not appreciate news programmes that talk about ley lines as if they are real. In short, we are Angry Archaeologists.

One of us is Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, who began work on a version of this site as part of his personal home pages as long ago as 1999. Keith is a local authority archaeologist in North Hertfordshire with a long-standing interest in Bad Archaeology and who has grown increasingly concerned at the profession’s evident unwillingness to deal with it. He is also worried at the growth of anti-Enlightenment attitudes during his lifetime, which he worries may return us to a Dark Age of superstition-based belief.

The other of us is James Doeser, who is currently trying to finish his PhD in government and archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. James is interested in the way efforts to increase public understanding of archaeology (museums, media, tourism etc.) collide with a the belief that everybody has a right to understand the past in whichever way they want. We can’t all be right, can we?

Highly commended. Just to name one field, there is unfortunately a great deal of nonsense out there in the realm of Biblical archaeology. In that area you may also look at another good site, The Bible and Interpretation.

There are many other sections in Bad Archaeology. I will certainly be spending time on it.

Bad Archaeology is all around us: many of its ideas are pervasive in popular culture; its publications sell more than Good Archaeology publications; its web presence is much stronger than that of Good Archaeology. What we are trying to do with this site is to show the utter vacuity of most Bad Archaeology and provide a reference point for Good (or at least, Better) Archaeology.

At the same time, we hope that this site will be a useful resource to people puzzled by various claims about the past, about apparently anomalous artefacts, about religious claims to knowledge that are in conflict with those of science and about assertions that just seem a bit dubious.

Above all, we hope that this site will entertain and amuse you!

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Posted by on March 14, 2009 in awful warnings, Bible, historiography, History


What is history? Not so easy to answer…

I do not propose a treatise on this, not only because the blog would be a silly place to try, unless of course the particular blog was entirely devoted to teasing out answers to this question. This is not an academic blog, nor is it devoted to any one subject, but rather to my own whims and hobby-horses. But it is a very serious question. Not enough people think about it. It is rather important, as so many of our arguments have recourse to some form of history, because no sooner do we begin to wonder why things are the way they are than we start looking for explanations, or a back story. In other words, we start doing history, and most often we probably do it naively or badly.

If you want to get into this in depth you could begin with Wikipedia – as we all do, even those of us who are snooty about the Wiki, or (not unjustifiably) suspicious about its status. (I am so glad some HSC students here in NSW have the opportunity to do a critical study of Wikipedia as part of their English course; I can’t imagine a more relevant or desirable study – though not as a whole course, obviously.) The old Wiki offers Historiography.

Historiography studies the processes by which knowledge is obtained and transmitted. Broadly speaking, historiography examines the writing of history and the use of historical methods, drawing upon such elements such as authorship, sourcing, interpretation, style, bias, and audience. The word historiography can also refer to a body of historical work. As the tools of historical investigation have changed over time and space, the term itself bears multiple meanings and is not readily associated with a single all-encompassing definition.

I have also glanced at The historiography of world history, which is from a viewpoint: “World History Archives, by Hartford Web Publishing, offers documents to support the study of world history from a working-class and non-Eurocentric perspective.” Given that, the site looks very useful nonetheless. What is regarded as “history”, whether or not it is “objective” or “scientific” – or can be – is fiercely debated. There is also the fact that across time and cultures what is taken as history has varied enormously. What is constant, however, is that no culture is a-historical. Every culture has its distinctive take on “the ancestors”, its special way, or ways, of treating the past.

We need our memories, individual or collective, it seems. They are in fact a large part of what defines us. Perhaps they are what defines us. Unfortunately, they can also be what divides us, what haunts us.

You can see already how deep a discussion could go, had I but world enough and time… Or talent…

Jim Belshaw often thinks about, indeed practises, both history and historiography. He pondered some issues just the other day: Byzantium, Turtledove and the power of imagination in history, and again this morning, though that entry raised another related policy issue where I find Jim’s argument quite attractive, though I am still at a loss to see what model might in fact take such things into account.

In the second of those posts Jim wrote:

When I studied ancient history at school, our initial focus was on the fertile crescent, Egypt and the middle east. This then shifted north and east to Greece, and then west to Rome….

I was not really aware of the degree of British and Western European centricity in my own historical thinking until quite recently. I was then quite annoyed, because it meant that my own thinking had been caught, conditioned if you like, by powerful but not fully seen mental maps…

In the first one he wrote:

I can and do argue that history is important. In doing so, I mount a variety of arguments. Yet the reality is that I just enjoy it. Too me, history is fun. However, in trying to understand history I also struggle to break through to that past world. What was it really like?

At one point Warren Treadgold discusses the decline in Byzantium intellectual activity during a particular period. He suggested, to use my words, that citation had taken the place of scholarship, that scholarship had taken the place of writing. I think that this is where we are today. 

The best history, the best of any discipline, comes from applied imagination. Too few people ask what it was really like, too many are simply prepared to argue present cases and attitudes.

Now I agree entirely that history is fun as well as important. I agree too that the best history – or at least the best to read – involves “applied imagination” and the art of giving at least a facsimile of what the past world was really like. It can only be a facsimile, albeit a good one if well done, as short of time travel that past world is, indeed, another country. Even if we could engage in Dr Who activity, we might still not be all that much further along in our understanding; how well do we even know what it is really like in 2008? Depends too on who’s doing the looking, who’s doing the talking, where they are, what they are looking at…

History is just like that, only more so.

That’s where Jim and I may differ a bit, as I welcome the variety of historical approaches. I think there are excellent reasons for being “prepared to argue present cases and attitudes”, even if that ought not to be the only history there is. So I actually rejoiced in the recent television history of Australia from an Indigenous perspective, even if it was using its own lenses, because the stories that came out were well worth hearing. That there are also other stories is beside the point. No matter how you cut it, as soon as you start doing history you have already made choices about what to attend to, what to follow. No-one can simply “tell it all.”

Empathy and imagination remain vital ingredients nonetheless. I hasten to add that neither Jim nor I would mean “invention” when we say “imagination” – well, not entirely. It really is quite fascinating how the past has been invented, from time to time, the history of Scotland being one rather interesting case in point.

The other thing which prompted this musing was watching an ancient (1974) documentary about flying boats, which led to today’s post on Ninglun’s Specials: Closely watched planes 6: flying boats. There was some marvellous footage there, and interviews that I am glad were recorded, with the likes of P G Taylor. But looking at it I could see how the doco had itself become a piece of history with its period concerns preserved in its own fabric, and I also realised that 1974 really is a long time ago and that consequently I, who was 31 at the time, am indeed in danger of being a fossil… Even further back in the dark ages I broke, to some extent, with my “degree of British and Western European centricity” by taking up Asian History at Sydney University, a considerable eccentricity at the time. But I have never regretted it. On the other hand, time and actual engagement with Asian people – M, for example – have shown how even that exercise did not escape my earlier mental maps, though it began to change them. In fact the first History class I can actually recall teaching when I was Cronulla High’s Thomas, in a manner of speaking, was on Indonesian history, and I was given the assignment, I now realise, because no-one there was comfortable with it at that time (1965) and my eccentricity had gone before me…


My last Top Read of 2008: Damian Thompson, “Counterknowledge” (Atlantic Books 2008)

0801-Grayling My reading these days comes from two main sources: Surry Hills Library or the bargain basement bookshops. I am after all a pensioner. Naturally, this does impact on my “Top Read” choices, but has not prevented my finding quite a few in the past twelve months. I will be listing them in another post later on, but you can also check the tag.

So the latest came via the bargain bookshop, $12.95 instead of $35 for the hardback.

I recommend Counterknowledge with two reservations.

The first is encapsulated in this otherwise very favourable review by British philosopher A C Grayling (no relation to a blogger some of us know) in New Humanist.

…The sentences that need to be added to this otherwise superb crusade against despoliation of truth and reason concern what harsh critics would, I am sure wrongly and unfairly, call a sleight-of-hand by Thomson, given that when he is not debunking counterknowledge he is none-too-indirectly associated with one of its most egregious forms by being the editor of the Catholic Herald. Early in his book he says that religion “does not fit neatly into the category of counterknowledge” because its claims are not about the material world and cannot be tested empirically. And he leaves it there; protected, you might say, behind the wholly admirable pyrotechnics of his assault on “misinformation masquerading as fact” to be found elsewhere.

This, I am afraid, will not do. As already suggested, the most persistent and influential forms of counterknowledge, including many false claims about the origin and nature of the universe, what it contains and what it is influenced by, which heavenly bodies go round which, what can be effected by prayer or the laying on of hands, and so vastly on, are the religions. Thomson rightly criticises the fact that the British state supports five homeopathic hospitals and pays for six degree courses in homeopathy, but says nothing about tax-funding of faith-based schools – not a few teaching creationism. He quotes Popper on falsifiability as the test of a genuine knowledge claim, but does not mention Popper’s correlative stricture, that “a theory which explains everything explains nothing”, as a direct refutation of the meaningfulness of religious claims.

He grants that religion becomes counterknowledge when it is controverted by the evidence of our senses, but does not admit that all religion is therefore so. He does not address the point that when factual information is lacking with respect to some claim – as is standardly the case with the major tenets of religion – constraints of rationality come into play…

Even so, Grayling says: “This excellent little book, if supplemented by a single brief sentence – a draft of which I offer below – should be put in the satchel of every secondary school child, in the departmental pigeonhole of every undergraduate…”

The second reservation I have is that there are times Thompson seems to me to be too Eurocentric, or a little too quick to label something as “counterknowledge” simply because it does not quite fit with his version of Enlightenment philosophy. I am sure you will see something paradoxical there in my two reservations!

I would go further than Thompson by quite happily regarding the Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke as pseudohistory, in which I am no different from many mainstream theologians. (You may get a post on that before Yuletide!) On the other hand, I would not be quite as dismissive as he is about Chinese Traditional Medicine.

I would also express some reservation about the use to which his generally perfectly correct criticisms of much thought in the Muslim world might be put by the likes of Daniel Pipes or Melanie Phillips, but then I am rather more of a cultural relativist than Thompson is.

That aside, the book is very stimulating and very useful. The chapter on Intelligent Design/Creationism is quite brilliant.

You don’t even need the book, really, though I do recommend it, partly out of a continuing belief that the reading of actual words on paper does have some advantages over absorbing matter from a screen – some of the disadvantages of which are actually made clear in the book! Nonetheless, the book was simultaneously published with its website, which is very comprehensive and also stimulating. Most of the people it will infuriate are people you really wouldn’t want to know anyway!


Comments Off on My last Top Read of 2008: Damian Thompson, “Counterknowledge” (Atlantic Books 2008)

Posted by on December 12, 2008 in Best read of 2008, book reviews, challenge, culture wars, faith and philosophy, fundamentalism and extremism, historiography, History, Top read


A blog is not a book, or random thoughts on important topics

Yes, I had trouble with thinking up a name for what is floating in my head at the moment! Some blogs, as we know, have become books — Riverbend, Stuff White People Like, Salam Pax — but the truth is blogging is evanescent, personal, and in miniature compared with proper books. So important topics tend to be aired in the spirit of good pub conversation, with the proviso that quite a few blogs also closely resemble bad pub conversation. We all know about opinionated drunks…

Not that this blog or any of the blogs I regularly read are in that last category, of course.

Speaking of conversations

My coaching session with J last Monday was the last of the year and became a good conversation — well, I confess to picking his brain rather, but it was still good, and he seemed to enjoy it. Being fifty years younger than I am, and of Mainland Chinese background, though educated entirely in Australia, his perspectives are in many ways quite different from my own. I tutor him in English, but on the other hand he has, he tells me, actually read and understood Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time — a year or two ago! — while I confessed to having read the first few pages and put it back on the shelf, like most people I know. Now there are all kinds of things in this anecdote about our assumptions about reading…

J is interested then in Astrophysics. He doesn’t propose to study History, Geography or even Economics in his senior years. I will probably be on hand to help him survive English, though he isn’t doing too badly. I picked his brain on the subject of dark energy, and how our cosmology has altered so much since 1998. To him this is unremarkable…

He is interested in philosophy, but hasn’t encountered much at school to feed that, he says. This of course is my selling point for senior English! He is also a good musician.

His rejection of the social sciences/history is of course partly personal, but I probed a bit about what if anything had turned him off. Now you mustn’t generalise when you read this, but he may have been killed by good intentions. Answer: too much Australian content! Indeed too much Indigenous Australian content, presented in too repetitious a manner ever since primary school, and focussing too much on the Stolen Generation.* He didn’t deny there were interesting stories there, but it does seem, from his experience, to have entered the world of background mantras rather than being a topic of living interest.

Repeat: don’t generalise too much from this.

When I found myself dealing with the topic in a senior English class in 1997-8 it was all a revelation, and all fresh, and worked because we connected it to a number of living people as well as literary and film texts. I also made a point of accepting opinions from students that were far from PC, but not without making sure I offered stories that challenged the stereotypes behind those opinions. The result was a sharing among us that really did change some attitudes. It hadn’t hardened into a course quite, as we were all finding out new things… (A ghost of that class still lives.)

Jim and Galarrwuy

Jim Belshaw recently gave advance notice of some conversations that may soon appear on his blog. I am looking forward to the outcome. You will note the title though: "Advance Notice – failures in Aboriginal policy." Well, we would have to agree there have been failures. And successes, which (reading between the lines) may also feature in those future posts.

When I browsed the December 2008 – January 2009 Monthly Magazine — where there are many excellent articles — I was drawn to Tradition, Truth & Tomorrow by Galarrwuy Yunupingu.

I was born in 1948 at Gunyangara, a beach on a beautiful headland near what is now known as Nhulunbuy, in east Arnhem Land. My father was Mungurrawuy Yunupingu, of the Gumatj clan, and my mother, Makurrngu, was of the Galpu clan. My parents gave me the name Galarrwuy, which means ‘the area on the horizon where the sea merges with the sky’. As I grew older my father would call me Djingarra, which means ‘crystal clear’. My elder sisters still call me this special name.

My father’s father was Nikunu. His totem was a sacred rock, an unbreakable rock – Yunupingu – a name that my grandfather gave to his son, Mungurrawuy, who passed it to all his children. My totem is fire, rock and the saltwater crocodile. The crocodile – baru – is a flame of fire: the mouth, the teeth and the jaw are the fire and its jaw is death. It is always burning, and through it I have energy, power – strength.

My land is that of the Gumatj clan nation, which is carefully defined, with boundaries and borders set out in the maps of our minds and, today, on djurra, or paper. We have our own laws, repeated in ceremonial song cycles and known to all members of our clan nation. Sung into our ears as babies, disciplined into our bodies through dance and movement – we have learnt and inherited the knowledge of our fathers and mothers. We live on our land, with our laws, speaking our language, sharing our beliefs and living our lives bound together with the other great clan nations of the Gove Peninsula: Rirritjingu, Djapu, Wanguri, Djalwong, Mangalili, Malarrpa, Marrakulu, Dartiwuy, Naymil, Gumatj, Galpu, Djumbarrpiynu, Dhudi-Djapu…

It’s a wonderful reflection, this piece.

Two Australians so close in age, Jim and Galarrwuy. Much binds them, and us, together in community, yet much also speaks of many Australias. We have each our own. And yet…

Today, almost 30 years after my father passed away, I still hold his clapsticks and I am the leader of my clan – with other senior family members I am the keeper and teacher of our song cycles, our ceremonies, our laws and our future. I care for and protect my clan. But I have not mastered the future. I find that I now spend my days worrying about how I can protect the present from the future. I feel the future moving in on the Yolngu world, the Gumatj world, like an inevitable tide, except every year the tide rises further, moving up on us, threatening to drown us under the water, unable to rise again. The water sands under our feet shift and move so often – the land to which we can reach out is often distant, unknown.

I look around me at the Yolngu world. I worry about the lives of the little ones that I see around me, including my own children – my youngest daughter is barely eight years old. I have more than a dozen grandchildren. I look back now on a lifetime of effort and I see that we have not moved very far at all. For all the talk, all the policy, all the events, all the media spectaculars and fine speeches, the gala dinners, what has been achieved? I have maintained the traditions, kept the law, performed my role – yet the Yolngu world is in crisis; we have stood still. I look around me and I feel the powerlessness of all our leaders. All around me are do-gooders and no-hopers – can I say this? Whitefellas. Balanda. They all seem to be one and the same sometimes: talking, talking, talking – smothering us – but with no vision to guide them; holding all the power, all the money, all the knowledge for what to do and how to work the white world. Only on the ceremonial ground do our leaders still lead – everywhere else we are simply paid lip service. Or bound up in red tape.

And the ‘gap’ that politicians now talk of grows larger as we speak, as I talk: as the next session of parliament starts or as the next speech is given by the next politician, the gap gets wider. I don’t think anyone except the few of us who have lived our lives in the Aboriginal world understand this task that is called ‘closing the gap’.

There is no one in power who has the experience to know these things. There is not one federal politician who has any idea about the enormity of the task. And how could they? Who in the senior levels of the commonwealth public service has lived through these things?…

I offer this with respect, both for Jim and for Galarrwuy.

And leave you to your own thoughts…

* Here is what J did in Year 9 (PDF).


Peter, Gough and Manning in “The Oz” today

I refer to the Weekend Australian’s Review section which I have been reading on good old-fashioned paper for the last hour or so. I buy the Oz on a Saturday mainly for the Review. Of course we have Greg Sheridan on the back page, but then again you can’t have everything.

I think I have most enjoyed Peter Goldsworthy this weekend. So sensible. Anticipating that his latest novel, in which a 14-year old boy has a relationship with a 20-something teacher, may cause a stir, Goldsworthy goes for the crash tackle. He scores too in my view.

MY wife Lisa has taught Tim Winton’s early novel That Eye the Sky to senior school students for years. This is a terrific book about complex characters, among them a needy older man and a needy 15 or 16-year-old girl, who use each other in different ways.

Until recently the novel fuelled plenty of discussions about family, power, vulnerability, religion, love, sexuality — the full catastrophe of human predicaments — but recently the book has become unteachable. Outraged students can’t be steered past the debate-ending blockage that the older man, Warburton, is a pedophile.

This year Lisa has had to go back to teaching my early novel Maestro, a book she’s sick to death of. Who could blame her — so am I — although some years ago that book also ran foul of noisy moral guardians when reverend Fred Nile and his wife Elaine attempted to have it banned from the HSC syllabus in NSW…

We humans love terrifying ourselves, whether in horror movies or in the shock-horror witch-hunts of the media. A century ago it was the yellow peril, then the commies, then the homos. Now it’s suspecting that every father is a pedophile, every second Muslim a terrorist, and the end is nigh unless we repent and mend our wicked carbon ways yesterday.

Instead of panicking, let’s try to look at rational risk-management. And let’s look at the media, the Daily Breathlessness that feeds our panic and our anger, and feeds off them, for our media gives us exactly what we want…

I would love to quote it all, but stop there. Do read it all, so long as the resource-hungry Oz site doesn’t make your computer run too hot and hard… (I wish these people would think of that!)

Gough Whitlam (legendary Australian PM) and Manning Clark (legendary Oz historian) come in two excellent reviews of recently published biographies.

Previous historians of Australia — the economic conservative Edward Shann, the liberal Keith Hancock, the radical nationalist Brian Fitzpatrick — tended to focus their narratives on the economic development of Australia and the politics of managing its economy. Clark would show how the settlers of Australia brought with them three great faiths, Catholicism, Protestantism and the secular traditions that he described as the Enlightenment, and would chart what happened to those faiths in the ancient and unresponsive Australian environment.

In a lecture not quoted by Matthews, he asked "why it was in my own country, in Australia, which had the same harsh, inhospitable environment as in the territory around Jerusalem, why it was that we had produced no theology … Why it was that in my own country no one had produced the image of Christ as an Australian face?" His Christian upbringing ensured that his prose style resonated with echoes of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible. He would write history as literature with something of the grandeur of 19th-century models such as Thomas Macaulay and Thomas Carlyle.

Unfortunately, as the six-volume history progressed Clark tended to lose sight of his original vision. If his history of Australia was to be comprehensive it must deal with other themes besides religion. New trends in historical writing — feminist history, migrant history, Aboriginal Australia — demanded attention. These competing elements were just manageable in the first three volumes, covering 1788 to 1851, to which Matthews devotes most attention. Perhaps Clark should have finished there.

I emphasise that clause in paragraph one because it seems to me that thesis still has enormous relevance.


“First Australians” on SBS — “must watch TV” not a cliche…

Starting on Sunday SBS television begins a seven part series called First Australians. I have taken up related issues from time to time, notably here.

I have just viewed the free DVD from today’s Sydney Morning Herald which gives a very good idea of what to expect. I am very impressed, even if there will be some issues where, objectively speaking, I may not accept all I see, but that in no ways diminishes the significance of this very ambitious project. On the one hand there will be furphies such as that the disastrous smallpox outbreak early in Sydney’s story was “germ warfare”, though that is roundly condemned in the program by historian Inga Clendinnen. On the other hand, there will be a fascinating interview with a descendant of the Suttor family of “Brucedale” — a property I have seen — who were pioneers of the Bathurst district soon after the first European crossing of the Blue Mountains.

I was (and am) annoyed by the “Black Armband”/”White Blindfold” dichotomy that has bedevilled Australian historiography since the 1980s. Neither is true. One thing, it seems to me, is beyond dispute. There is no way that here and now in 2008 we can approach the subject as if it were 1958, 1938, 1898, 1858, or indeed 1788. Whatever one thinks of “postcolonialism” –and much of the theory I find both tendentious and opaque — the fact is we are postcolonial; we simply cannot exclude the voices of the colonised, nor should we, from our historical considerations. We cannot regard official written records as the only valid historical witnesses. Certainly, we need archaeology, and we need to regard many issues without, so far as is possible, ideological preconsiderations. We need to realise that the story is neither merely one of genocidal malice nor one of enlightened beneficence. One can find examples of both in the history, and everything in between. To pursue either extreme as the sole picture is to fall into the trap of apologetics or propaganda.

In sum, I think this important project is one that all Australians should watch. It will become in future an extremely valuable educational resource. It is an encouraging sign of our maturity that such a project has even happened. This is not to say it should all be accepted passively. That, I suspect, is far from the documentary team’s intention. We will be informed by the project, no doubt about it, and all the better as Australians for the experience. I believe too that in having this debate at all we project an excellent image to the world of what a free and open society is truly like — a society where truth matters and nothing is beyond criticism.


I was not disappointed. I think it is good, on reflection, that a number of rather bitter voices were included, as they cannot then complain of being excluded — and they do need to be attended to. History is about viewpoint and emotion, not just about :facts: as 1) the selection of which :facts: are salient is a matter very often of viewpoint, and 2) the reality of times past, as time present, is more than :facts: can ever capture. This is not to condone downright lying, of course, or to accept :facts: which are no such thing. Inga Clendinnen was a humane and binding voice through the whole episode. The material on Brucedale was just fascinating, and deserves to be widely known.

It is living up to its promise. It continues on Tuesday.


Now, what did I learn half a century ago?

mix 001 I happened to browse one of my older books last night, one that is special in its way…

… as you may see on the right. Mind you, I did crash and burn a bit the following year. I was a great guesser of what would be in exam papers, tailoring my revision accordingly, and got lucky in 1958. Unfortunately I was off in my predictions for 1959.

Europe in the XIX Century was first published in 1940, then revised in 1952. That revision is the one you see on the left. I chose it as part of my prize because it covered the then Leaving Certificate course rather well with lots of neat summaries, maps and diagrams, and is written in a style that is refreshingly lacking in pomposity. It still has its uses.

mix 002There are some things about it that bring a grin or a cringe when read today, however. Take the following:

The second great field for European expansion in the nineteenth century was the Far East. The countries in the Pacific were far more wealthy and attractive than the savage no man’s land of Africa, but they were also for that reason more difficult to penetrate, and quite impossible to retain as colonies. For a time guns and machines gave the Europeans their own way, and China and Japan had to  do what they were told. European supremacy, however, was only temporary because the people of the east were quite as intelligent as their conquerors, and soon learned to turn the new mechanical inventions against their inventors. In central and south Africa, on the other hand, Europeans have never lost control because the black races are too backward to combine against them…

Oh the things people took for granted! I would not call Ayerst out for egregious racism, though it might appear that way; rather he was reflecting what was then “common sense” — that is, beliefs very widely shared and rarely questioned. His sang-froid about Africans was shortly to be tested, wasn’t it?

There is a handy glossary of political terms in the back. Here are some choice examples:

  • COMMUNISM, COMMUNIST: Originally the same as socialism (q.v.). Thus Marx’s ‘Communist Manifesto’ of 1848 might equally have been called ‘The Socialist Manifesto’. Since the war it has been applied to those extreme socialist parties which are in agreement with Russia.
  • SOCIALISM, SOCIALIST: A society in which the means of production (e.g. mines, farms, factories), distribution (e.g. railways) and exchange (e.g. shops, banks) are owned by the whole community and not by private individuals. It is usually said that in a socialist state everybody would do the work for which they were best fitted and everybody would receive whatever they needed, as far as the resources of the community went.
  • CAPITAL, CAPITALIST: A capitalist is one who owns capital, i.e. the means of production such as factories, machines or money with which he employs people to work for him.
  • FASCISM: Fascism has two meanings: 1) the present Italian system of government [That escaped the 1952 revision!]; 2) any roughly similar system of government, e.g. the National Socialist system in Germany. Fascism differs from (a) Conservatism (q.v.) because it endeavours by government interference to improve the position of the wage earner at the expense of the private capitalist; (b) Socialism (q.v.), because it is strongly nationalist (q.v.) and allows private property; (c) Democracy (q.v.) because it replaces parliamentary or responsible government (q.v.) by unquestioning obedience to a dictator.
  • DEMOCRACY, DEMOCRAT: That form of society in which everybody has an equal share through their votes in the choice of a government and in which all men are treated equally by the government irrespective of their race, religion or wealth.
  • REPRESENTATIVE GOVERNMENT, RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT: Representative Government exists where the citizens are consulted through a parliament which makes the laws. Responsible government exists only where the citizen through parliament can get rid of a government or minister of whom tey disapprove. It is possible to have representative government without responsible government, e.g. in Germany before the war, but not vice-versa.
  • SEPARATION OF POWERS: The system by which the executive, legislative and judiciary are each independent of the other and of equal status, as in the U.S.A. In England and most other countries either the executive or the legislative is usually supreme.
  • CONSERVATISM, CONSERVATIVE: A person, political party or belief aiming at keeping things as they are or restoring them to their former condition. The objects of conservatism, therefore, differ from country to country and from generation to generation, e.g. European conservatives in 1820 were opposed to nationalism (q.v.); today they encourage it. [He may also have noted that in the 19th century conservatives were opposed to democracy; it may also be noted, by this definition, that Chinese adhering today to the position of the Communist Party and the memory of Mao are conservatives — which indeed they are, in that context.]
  • LIBERALISM, LIBERAL: When spelled with a small ‘l’ liberal means one who believes in the greatest possible freedom for the individual — particularly freedom (a) to carry out his business as he likes; (b) to express in speech and writing what views he likes; (c) to have a share by his vote in the government of his country. When spelled with a capital ‘L’ Liberal is the name of a political party, usually a middle-class party, which tries to secure these privileges.
  • INTELLIGENTSIA: The highly educated part of a nation. Often used as a term of abuse.

Fascinating stuff, I think. And yes, I spotted all those generic third person singular masculine gender pronouns… Another of those unquestioned assumptions of the period.

I note here that Ayerst went on to write in 1971 a history of The [Manchester] Guardian newspaper, and that he lived from 1904 to 1992. On reflection, that means that he was 55 when I was trawling his book for the Leaving, ten years younger than I am now…

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Posted by on October 7, 2008 in curriculum, historiography, History, nostalgia, personal, Political, politics


Bigotry is not confined to the religious or the right wing

AV has made a kind and much appreciated allusion to this blog’s recent travails. However, when he attributes the event to right-wing authoritarianism he is not entirely correct; certainly an authoritarian cast of mind and an antidemocratic spirit are involved. However, the source of the attack was not necessarily motivated by conventional right-wing politics, and certainly not by religion. On the other hand, excessive certainty and intolerance of criticism or difference were part of the picture. In those respects, the spirit of the attack was indeed, as AV notes, antidemocratic.

I can say that it is fairly certain where the attack came from, and what motivated it — the attacker’s problem, that, not mine. The attacker as good as left DNA all over the scene of the crime. In attacking me he also attacked, and I am sure they are not taking it kindly. They are also far more expert in these matters than either the attacker or I. It did amuse me to witness a log file from the time of these events which included a suggestion, obviously emanating from WordPress, that the hacker apply for a job with AutoMattic — the company behind WordPress. I take it that was ironic…

That brings me to two articles and a book which, it seems to me, are the antithesis of bigotry, whether that is religious or antireligious bigotry. I am not saying I agree with them, but I do say they are worth reading. The book is one of my Best Reads of 2008.

My theism is of the most modest kind and would deeply offend fundamentalists. I am thus a great admirer of the former Anglican bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, “a man who, for many conservative Christians, has stretched the definition of liberal theology past breaking point, while remaining for many non-believers the most humane and persuasive apologist for faith.” That comes from a review just published in New Statesman: Doubting Dawkins. Rather than quoting it further, I will simply commend it to your consideration. Holloway’s emphasis on the primacy of compassion does appeal to me.

The second article is from the USA and does raise some interesting questions: Jonathan Haidt, What Makes People Vote Republican? from Again, while not necessarily endorsing all that Haidt says, I do commend it as worth consideration.

…This research led me to two conclusions. First, when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare. In fact, many people struggled to fabricate harmful consequences that could justify their gut-based condemnation. I often had to correct people when they said things like “it’s wrong because… um…eating dog meat would make you sick” or “it’s wrong to use the flag because… um… the rags might clog the toilet.” These obviously post-hoc rationalizations illustrate the philosopher David Hume’s dictum that reason is “the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them.” This is the first rule of moral psychology: feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete. If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so. The Democrats have historically failed to grasp this rule, choosing uninspiring and aloof candidates who thought that policy arguments were forms of persuasion.

The second conclusion was that the moral domain varies across cultures. Turiel’s description of morality as being about justice, rights, and human welfare worked perfectly for the college students I interviewed at Penn, but it simply did not capture the moral concerns of the less elite groups—the working-class people in both countries who were more likely to justify their judgments with talk about respect, duty, and family roles. (“Your dog is family, and you just don’t eat family.”) From this study I concluded that the anthropologist Richard Shweder was probably right in a 1987 critique of Turiel in which he claimed that the moral domain (not just specific rules) varies by culture. Drawing on Shweder’s ideas, I would say that the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.

When Republicans say that Democrats “just don’t get it,” this is the “it” to which they refer. Conservative positions on gays, guns, god, and immigration must be understood as means to achieve one kind of morally ordered society. When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label “elitist.” But how can Democrats learn to see—let alone respect—a moral order they regard as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb?…

The book is John Dominic Crossan, God & Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now (Harper San Francisco 2007). You may read the Preface on that second link.

For a very long time I have been pondering the texts and wandering the ruins of the Roman Empire. Initially, I did so as a biblical scholar doing research for books I was writing on the historical reconstruction of earliest Christianity from The Historical Jesus in 1991, through The Birth of Christianity in 1998, to In Search of Paul, co-authored with the archaeologist Jonathan Reed of the University of LaVerne, in 2004. I presume those three books as prelude and preparation for this book on God and Empire.

I have always thought of the historical Jesus as a homeland Jew within Judaism within the Roman Empire. I have always thought of the historical Paul as a diaspora Jew within Judaism within the Roman Empire. For me, then, within Judaism within the Roman Empire has always been the absolutely necessary matrix rather than the annoyingly unnecessary background for any discussion of earliest Christianity. You can see that three-layer matrix, for example, in the sub-titles to the first and last books above. For the historical Jesus, The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant, emphasizes Rome,  Judaism, and Jew.   For the historical Paul, How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, emphasizes Jew, Rome, and Judaism. Whether you start or end with the Roman Empire, the Roman Empire is always there.

But there is now a further reason for studying the textual and archaeological history of the Roman Empire. Here is that newer but now accompanying reason. I have been hearing recently two rather insistent claims from across the spectrum of our religio-political life. The first one claims that America is now and/or was always an empire. That, in fact, the virus of imperialism came—like so many other ones—on those first ships from Europe. The second and subsidiary one claims that we are in fact Nova Roma, the New Roman Empire, Rome on the Potomac…

— from the Preface

Certainly the opening chapter is a brilliant exposition of the nature of Rome under the Julio-Claudians, a subject I have studied both at University, and as a sometime Ancient History teacher. Many of the remarks about contemporary America are also apposite. It is also good to find a very learned man who writes like a human!

That said, I am not entirely convinced by all that Crossan says. Yes, he does get up the noses of fundamentalists — and as far as I am concerned that is a big plus. (A Muslim Crossan — and I am sure this is possible and may even exist — would be highly desirable.) I also have to say that the agnostic side of my humble theism is offended by the unspoken assumption that the Mediterranean really is the centre of the world, as the Roman conceit of Medi + Terranean implies. A similar conceit made China, about which Europe and Palestine in the first century knew little and cared less, call itself Zhong Guo or Middle Kingdom. In all our historical and religious considerations, we need above all in the 21st century to take that fact on board. It is an uncomfortable consideration. It does not impact one way or another on our ideas about the existence of God, whatever that word actually means; but it does impact on our views about what God is alleged to have said or done. Inevitably, I would have thought.


My traditional “Saturday Stats” will appear on Blogspot.


Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘The Invention of Scotland’ – July 23, 2008 – The New York Sun

It’s true, you know; a very large proportion of what passes for Scottish history in the popular imagination, from the travesty Shakespeare made of the historical Macbeth to the present day, is, not to be too delicate, crap. But this has been known for a very long time — that much of this “history” dates from from the romantic novels (and conservative politics) of Sir Walter Scott, not to mention the 18th century’s fake “Ossian” poems. Just about everything we now think of as Scottish emerged around the time of Queen Victoria. So Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘The Invention of Scotland’ isn’t really news.

…it is hardly a surprise to learn that the kilt and tartan, too, are not quite the Scottish traditions that they seem. Sad to say, the kilt was invented by an Englishman, Thomas Rawlinson, who came to Scotland in the 1720s to manage an ironworks in the Highlands. Rawlinson observed that while the actual native costume of the Highlanders — the long belted cloak called the plaid — might have been suitable for rambling over hills and bogs, it was “a cumbrous, inconvenient habit” for men working at a furnace. So he hired the tailor of the local army regiment to make something more “handy and convenient for his workmen” by “separating the skirt from the plaid and converting into a distinct garment” — the kilt. This symbol of Highland tradition, as Trevor-Roper notes, was “bestowed … on the Highlanders, not in order to preserve their traditional way of life, but to ease its transformation: to bring them off the heath and into the factory.” As with so many of the tales Trevor-Roper has to tell, the truth may not be as romantic as the legend, but its irony makes it no less compelling.

Apparently my great-grandfather’s affectation of the kilt (see above right) led to his being greeted in the towns of Scotland as “kiltie kiltie cold bum” — or so his son once told me!

A more sober account of the nonetheless fascinating — and little known — history of Scotland may be found in Christopher Harvie, Scotland: A Short History, OUP 2002.

In this gripping narrative, one of Scotland’s leading historians and political writers discusses the geography, people and culture of this fascinating land–from prehistoric times to the present day. The only short history of Scotland available that deals with the most recent developments in the country, like the establishment of Scotland’s first parliament in over 300 years in 1999, this work places events in their historical and cultural context, and reflects the remarkable revival in Scottish culture and history writing since the 1960s. Topics covered include the shaping of the kingdom, medieval Scotland, reformation and dual monarchy, union and enlightenment, industrialization, and the troubled but ultimately triumphant twentieth century. Harvie also deals with long-standing cliches about Scotland and analyzes Scotland’s disproportionate role in European nationalism.

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Posted by on July 25, 2008 in Australia and Australian, book reviews, British, historiography, History, Scottish


Zimbabwe: why it can never be 1870 again, or even 1970…

Clearly my coffee break hasn’t lasted… 😉

Consider the history of Zimbabwe, according to Wikipedia:

From circa 1250–1629, the area that is known as Zimbabwe today was ruled under the Mutapa Empire, also known as Mwene Mutapa, Monomotapa or the Empire of Great Zimbabwe, which was renowned for its gold trade routes with Arabs. However, Portuguese settlers destroyed the trade and began a series of wars which left the empire in near collapse in the early 17th century. In 1834, the Ndebele people arrived while fleeing from the Zulu leader Shaka, making the area their new empire, Matabeleland. In the 1880s, the British arrived with Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company. In 1898, the name Southern Rhodesia was adopted.

As colonial rule was ending throughout the continent, and as African-majority governments assumed control in neighbouring Northern Rhodesia and in Nyasaland, the white-minority Rhodesia government led by Ian Smith made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from the United Kingdom on 11 November 1965. The United Kingdom deemed this an act of rebellion, but did not re-establish control by force. The white-minority government declared itself a “republic” in 1970. It was not recognised by the UK or any other state. A civil war ensued, with Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU and Robert Mugabe’s ZANU using assistance from the governments of Zambia and Mozambique.

On 18 April 1980, the country attained recognised independence and along with it a new name, Zimbabwe, new flag, and government led by Robert Mugabe of ZANU. Canaan Banana served as the first president with Mugabe as prime minister. In 1987, the government amended the constitution to provide for an executive president and abolished the office of prime minister. The constitutional changes went into effect on 1 January 1988, establishing Robert Mugabe as president.

Under the leadership of Mugabe, land issues, which the liberation movement promised to solve, re-emerged as the vital issue in the 1990s. Beginning in 2000, Mugabe began an effort to redistribute land from white holders (predominantly large farms) to 250,000 Africans.

And so what superficially seems a just cause is being played out with results that have so far been disastrous for Zimbabweans of all backgrounds, except for a few, and promise no better. Why? Because [former?] Catholic boy Robert Gabriel Mugabe has seen the promised land and doesn’t care what it costs to get there — as long, one might add, as it doesn’t cost him or his cronies. The result is the eyesore of southern Africa, as we all know.

That is, apparently, unless you are an Australian Communist. The little group that carries the name Communist Party of Australia these days, the original CPA having long ago abolished itself, has no doubt at all about the sanctity of St Robert the Born Again Marxist and Hero of the Great Liberation. Don’t believe that this doublethink is not still alive and well in some leftist brains: all you have to do is read the current issue of the Sydney CPA paper: July CPA Guardian (PDF). There you will find an article on the correctness of Mugabe’s ideology and the evil of the running dogs of capitalism and imperialism who are trying to get the Great Zimbabwean Working Class and Peasantry to betray the Noble Cause. Such purblind crap takes me back to the drivel I used to see about the likes of Pol Pot.

I am not downplaying the complexity of the postcolonial condition, or extolling the virtues of capitalism and imperialism, neo- or otherwise, nor am I nostalgic for the piratical Cecil John Rhodes, but the romantic dream of somehow unravelling all the injustice in some glorious revolution had joined the ranks of great illusions of the twentieth century by the end of the 1980s, if not before. It has never worked out quite as the dreamers and revolutionaries might have hoped, has it?

There are also some good articles in that Guardian, I have to say, and I cherish the fact they can publish freely in this country. Such press freedom is in short supply in Zimbabwe.

More promising than that particular Marxist analysis is a book I am just getting into which rethinks the whole scene, and not just relating to Zimbabwe: Conquest: A new history of the modern world by David Day (Harper Collins 2005). As one review quoted on that page says:

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Keith Windschuttle & Robert Edgerton: a comparison of texts

Well worth a look for history buffs and/or culture warriors is that online only feature in the July Monthly. Otherwise you may find therein:


“Despite the most fervent wishes of Bob Brown, coal isn’t going anywhere. According to the Australian Coal Association, coal-fired power stations produce 84% of Australia’s electricity and 38% of its greenhouse emissions, significantly higher than the global average of one-quarter. In part this is because the nation does not rely on nuclear power. Contrary to popular belief, Australia does not control the world market for coal, but it is the biggest exporter, with nearly a third of the global trade in black coal, and 60% of trade in metallurgical coal, which is used for smelting. Regardless of the Kyoto Protocol or whatever scheme succeeds it, world demand for coal is very conservatively forecast to rise 73% by 2030.”

In “In the Dark?”, John Birmingham investigates our dependence on fossil fuels, and the federal government’s generous funding of the search for a “clean” form of coal.

“Rudd and Swan knew that spending cuts had to be made, and in the frenzy of budget preparation it seemed reasonable to expect families whose income had moved into the magic realm of six figures to pay for their own home renovations. Especially as billions of dollars had to be found for election promises like tax cuts and the clean-energy fund, with its $500-million handout to Rio Tinto and co. for clean-coal research. A fraction of that half-billion would have saved the solar-panel industry and ensured that a proven green technology continued to grow. But it would not have done anything to safeguard future income, the thousands of billions of dollars that coal will generate over the decades ahead.”

“In August 2003, in the Indonesian archipelago, a dig on Flores had plumbed six metres in a limestone cave called Liang Bua, and an extraordinary find was coming to light. ‘You could tell something was going on,’ says one of the research team. ‘There was no eureka moment, but a hush fell over the cave, and people started looking stressed. When they asked for a box, it was a real indication of importance’ – they had found something they wanted to remove in one lump of sediment, so they could look at it more carefully later, away from the dig. This something took three days to extricate. It was a skeleton, so tantalisingly conserved that some of its sections were still joined, and so fragile that it had the consistency of wet blotting paper. The researchers thought it was a pre-modern child; they took it to the hotel where they’d set up a bone room and began to study it.”

In “Lovely Bones”, Ashley Hay tells the story of the Flores “hobbit”: its discovery and verification and the subsequent arguments over its classification, and the implications of this for our understanding of human evolution.

And more…

Meanwhile, the South Sydney Herald has also just come out.

This month’s 16-page issue features: news on Barry O’Farrell and Duncan Gay in Redfern; an update re damage to the Yiu Ming Temple in Alexandria; a report on the launch of World Refugee Week; chefs against a GM nation; Kings Cross cultures; pain management; reviews of Gathering Ground on the Block, Mahalia Barnes, Mongol; interviews with Laura Jean and Robert F Cranny; thoughtful/provocative opinion pieces; parochial sports coverage; and more…!

That of course is my church paper, but  also a truly independent local paper often covering matters way beyond the parish. Here is your copy (PDF). A fine old lefty on my own “paper round” — I distribute 300 copies in my immediate area — always receives his, if he is up and about, with a comment that the South Sydney Herald and The Guardian are the only papers worth reading these days. That’s this Guardian, not the famous one. Perhaps that is a bit more left than the SSH… 😉

Over the fold: more in the July Monthly:

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Posted by on July 3, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, culture wars, historiography, History, Indigenous Australians, interfaith, magazines, media watch, reading, South Sydney Uniting Church, Surry Hills


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