Waleed Aly in today’s Age speculates on Australia’s defensiveness about our past, particularly the fact of Indigenous dispossession through British colonisation. He correctly points to this generating a nation that is thin-skinned, anxious, full of zealously patrolled false pride, and liable to react to the slightest criticism.
He contrasts our defensiveness and immaturity with the US, where the mistakes and failures of the past are “not fatal to its identity.”
He says this:
The US is built on the idea of constant progress through individual liberty. It’s a nation that is never finished, never perfect, but always being perfected. Its historical scars are therefore not fatal to its identity. Indeed, they are essential because they allow Americans to tell a story of their own perfectibility. In these hands, slavery is not simply a stain, but a symbol of how far they’ve come. So, in the process of acknowledging slavery, the US is celebrated, not condemned.
We’re not like that. We struggle with our history because once we admit it, we have nowhere to go with it; no way of rehabilitating our pride; no way of understanding ourselves. As a nation, we lack a national mythology that can cope with our shortcomings. That transforms our historical scars into fatal psychological wounds, leaving us with a bizarre need to insist everything was – and is – as good as it gets.
It’s interesting material, and there’s something I want to tweak in his account. It’s not quite right to say or imply that having a national mythology would allow us to look at our shortcomings. That’s putting the cart before the horse.
A national mythology, the kind that would transform our nation, is not something that can exist before the fact. It’s something that must emerge from the enquiry into the past and its mistakes. The enquiry into the past, the willingness to look, is what generates the possibility of the new.
First, there’s the willingness, the humility, the act of grace involved in not hiding, in not-knowing. Then, from it, out of it, arises the possibility of transformation, the new, the re-born identity.
Unless and until Australia is willing to look into the crypt, there can be no powerful national mythology, no transformation.
As it is for the country, so it is for the individual. Each individual of any country. First, there’s the willingness to look, then there’s the possibility of transformation. Always that order. Always that pre-requisite.
Here is the full article: Why Australia lies to itself about its Indigenous history