Lest We Forget

April 25, 2013

It’s not about jingoism, it’s not about glorifying war.

It’s about remembering those who are gone, those who still live with the memories, and those whose lives – in one way or another – are touched by war.

Private John (Jack) Bassett, 55 Anti Aircraft, Darwin, I remember you.
Corporal Laurence (Laurie) weaver, 2/2 Australian Malaria Control Unit, Balikpapan, I remember you.
Private Albert Humphries, 2/6 Supply Depot, I remember you.

Please feel free to add anyone you wish to remember.


The Culture Wars are back

April 22, 2013

Grab your rose-coloured glasses, run up the Union Jack and get spotting those black armbands. Yes, the culture wars are back.

Shadow Education spokesperson Christopher Pyne fired the latest salvo in our Federal-Election-campaign-that-isn’t, today. His target was the National Curriculum, specifically, the study of History – and the irony quotient was thick on the ground.

We shouldn’t take a ‘black armband view’ of history. We ‘should know the truth about it’. Best of all, ‘we shouldn’t allow it to colour our present and our future’. And what does all that mean? Why, that our National Curriculum is too ‘politically correct’ and that we need to ‘restore’ the importance of Anzac Day and our (wince) ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’.

Take a moment. Pick your jaw up off the floor – or stop laughing.

No, this isn’t some weird moment of de ja vu. You haven’t been transported back to the Howard era, and I haven’t been reading the fantastic imaginings of Keith Windschuttle. This is right now. Today.

Pyne says it will be the Coalition’s ‘first education priority’ to rewrite the National History Curriculum. It must be done! Our kids are in danger! They will not learn the truth about Anzac Day and our national identity! Why, we even have an expert – a one-man think tank named Dr Kevin Donnelly – telling us so.

Back up a minute, Nelly.

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the truly astounding notion that it’s more important to shred the National Curriculum than, say, deal with issues of literacy, school funding, special programs, etc. (But, wow, couldn’t we go to town on that?) Just exactly how is this dreadful curriculum destroying Our Way of Life?

Here’s a novel idea. Let’s take a look. The document is freely available, after all.

Let’s see, now. Prep (or Foundation) level focuses on family history, and how family events are commemorated. Seems okay. Ditto Year 1 – oh, but wait. The kids are taught to look at how family structures may be different ‘now’, as opposed to in their parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods. Potential minefield there. Heaven forbid they learn about blended families, single parent families, ‘grandparent’ families or even – gasp – same-sex families.

Perhaps Mr Pyne wants to make sure kids deny the evidence of their own experience? Or is it just that he doesn’t want his government to be seen condoning such terrible situations?

Uh, Mr Pyne? Your Coalition has made damned sure that none of us are under any illusions there. We know what you think of us.

We move on, to local history in Year 3 (complete with projects that encourage kids to look at structures like local war memorials). Nothing wrong with that – but uh-oh, here’s where it gets ‘unacceptable’. Here we have the first mention of indigenous peoples. Kids are taught about the important of Country and Place, and about national holidays. Oh, they get taught about Anzac Day, but they also get taught about National Harmony Day, and Sorry Day. How dare we ask kids to think of anything to be as important as Anzac Day?

It gets worse! Now, we’re supposed to ask kids to consider Anzac Day as a holiday similar to Christmas Day – or Ramadan – or Chinese New Year! Or Independence Day in the US!

We have to teach them about our first contact with indigenous peoples, Asian migration to the goldfields, giving the vote to women and to indigenous people, the contribution of migrants, the environment movement, reconciliation around the world, Asia (specifically China) in the modern world, and even (horror of horrors), the spread of Islam.

Terrible, isn’t it?

Now, maybe if that was all our kids were being taught, Pyne might have a point. Except it isn’t.

Our kids also learn about Anzac Day … and the ancient world … the rise of Christianity … Federation … World War II … the First Fleet … the Eureka Stockade (whoops, better not include that one, we might give the kids the idea we approve of unionism) … Aussie Rules football (for goodness’ sake) … Kokoda … etc … etc.

Now, I went through school (in the 70s and 80s), but I’ve got a pretty good memory (and some of the textbooks, dear me). From Grade Prep to 6, we learned virtually no history. In Year 7, we had some fun learning about ‘cavemen’ and ancient Greece (history, apparently, started with the Greeks). Year 8 was medieval European history (specifically Christian-based – those evil Saracens, dontcha know), and Year 9 was Australian History.

It’s worth pointing out that when I say ‘Australian’ history, I’m talking ‘British’. There was a nod to the Aboriginals who came out to watch the First Fleet, but otherwise, the concept of terra nullius was firmly entrenched. All those explorers – Dampier, Cook, Burke, Hume – apparently wandered around or landed on a really big island with strange animals and no people. Except for the occasional ‘native tracker’, who seemed to spring from nowhere and act the part of the good little servant, we didn’t find out anything about the indigenous peoples. Oh, except for the occasional anecdote about ‘savages’ who attacked the white settlers.

We did spend a lot of time learning about Gallipolli – how it was all about mateship, and our brave men playing cricket on the beaches at Anzac Cove. At no time did we learn that it was a terrible defeat, or that our war dead were virtually led into a killing field. We had Australia Day dress-ups (oh, those colonial bonnets) in Primary School and Anzac Day ceremonies in High School.

(And while we’re on the subject of Anzac Day, you really have to wonder why Pyne and his ‘expert’ are so worried. Thanks to former Prime Minister John Howard, all our schools have flagpoles – and they use them. Anzac Day is commemorated every year with the minute’s silence. Primary kids learn about the origins of Anzac Day, are allowed to take the day off to march in the parade for their grandfathers, or even accompany marchers from battalions associated with their school (as my own children did last year, marching with the 2/14 Battalion in honour of Bruce Kingsbury, VC, after whom their school was named). It’s a part of school life in a way it never was during my early years – back then, we stood in silence but never really understood why.)

We learned about Chinese people on the goldfields, but not about the White Australia Policy. We learned about Changi and the Burma Railway, but not that we interned people in camps during World War II.

In short, we learned a piecemeal version of the history of our own country, and largely pretended the rest of the world didn’t matter. The National History Curriculum offers a much more comprehensive course that gives us ‘warts and all’ – as any student of history knows, you have to read the good with the bad, or you end up learning nothing. So where, exactly, is the ‘very one sided, politically correct view’ that so worries the Coalition?

You have to love that phrase, ‘politically correct’. It’s such a good insult to throw around. Say something that makes people uncomfortable? You’re politically correct. Point out where privilege is operating and people are/were disenfranchised? Likewise – and worse, you have a ‘black armband’ view. The Coalition seems to think it’s important that we don’t tell our kids what we did, what our ancestors did, what our country was like in the past and what its place is in the world.

This is a very dangerous way of thinking. It’s a truism that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. What the Coalition proposes is not that we forget the past, but that we actively bury it. That we distort it. That we lie to our children and tell them that nobody really got hurt in white settlement, that Gallipolli was glorious and that we’re a homogenous, ‘Judeo-Christian’, white society – and that, by implication, everyone else is not really ‘Australian’.

It’s not just a step backwards. It’s a giant leap straight into the arms of propaganda – because, make no mistake, that is exactly the aim of the Coalition’s proposed ‘rewrite’. Donnelly, claims that those responsible for drafting the National Curriculum ‘are hostile towards the institutions, beliefs and grand narrative associated with Western civilisation that make this nation unique’.

The key phrase there is ‘grand narrative’. Simply put, a grand narrative is an overarching story-of-stories that is used to replace smaller, more detailed stories. Most of the time, such a narrative leaves out or obscures more than it explains. In this case, Donnelly claims that the National Curriculum undermines the grand narrative of Australia’s British heritage and its debt to Europe (read: Britain, or at least northern Europe, possibly France if we’re feeling generous).

And well it should. However much Donnelly, Pyne and Howard would like it to be otherwise, Australia is not – and has never been – a little piece of Britain. We are far more complex, and our history is far richer. We do every student a disservice by trying to teach them otherwise.

You might not agree with the current (or proposed) school funding split. You might think NAPLAN is a horrible idea, and MySchool a waste of time. But when it comes to either teaching our kids the whole story, or giving them a pretty meagre pick-n-mix view of history – it should be a no-brainer.

And if giving the kids a perspective on Australia’s place in the world, our indigenous history, and the way we’ve been shaped by religions, cultures and political beliefs of all kinds – if giving them that makes us politically correct …

Let’s aim for a score of 10/10.

Lest We Forget

April 25, 2012

Today is ANZAC Day, when we remember those who served in our military forces in wars ranging from as far away as Gallipoli to as close as Darwin. We remember those who gave their lives, and those whose lives were changed forever.

All around the country people were up before dawn, gathering at cenotaphs and shrines. Here in Melbourne, with the rain bucketing down in the chill dark, veterans, serving members of the ADF, relatives, school groups, and people who simply felt moved to be present stood in silence. Then, as The Last Post was played, the rain let up for one brief moment.

Today’s parades will echo that first march by Australian and New Zealand veterans in England. My own youngest children and their Grade 6 class will march for the first time with the 2nd 14th Battalion. They were so excited and yet so aware of how serious this is that – for the first time in their lives – they begged to be allowed to go to bed early.

In many small towns, the names of those who served are read out to honour them. I’d like to do the same on The Conscience Vote today, and so I’ll start with members of mine and my husband Brett’s families. Even though my family history is spotty at best, I have their names.

I invite any commenter to add the names of their loved ones who served in any war, past or present, on any side. Anti-war diatribes or partisan politics posted in comments will be immediately deleted, however. Today is about remembrance.

Private John Edward Bassett, 55 Anti-Aircraft Regiment. My maternal grandfather, who survived the 1942 Darwin bombings.

Harold Humphries, RAAF. My great-uncle, shot down and killed in action.

Private Albert Humphries, 2nd AIF. My great-uncle, captured by Japanese forces. We believe he died on the Burma-Thailand Railway.

Corporal Laurence Arthur Weaver, 2/2 Australian Malaria Control Unit. My paternal grandfather, who served in the Battles of Morotai and Borneo.

Peter Weaver, Royal Australian Infantry. My uncle, who served in Vietnam.

Nicholas Elliott, British Marine Medical Corps. Brett’s paternal great-grandfather, who served at the Battle of the Somme.

Carmello Azzopardi, RAN. Brett’s maternal great-grandfather, who served in the Battle of Jutland and on the HMS Ajax.

Dean Azzopardi, RAN. Currently posted to Cairns.


They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Lest We Forget.

ANZAC - Lest We Forget

The plaque at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance

Lest we forget – Anzac Day’s not for politics

April 25, 2011

Today is Anzac Day. As always, strong emotions get stirred up around this time. Some wax nostalgic, some speak out forcefully against war – and some use it as their own personal political platform. Whether that be to decry rape of women and girls in wartime, or to criticise the immense Defence budget that appears to remain untouchable despite shortfalls in other areas of governmental responsibility, the response from the media and the public is usually immediate and unequivocal.

It’s simply not on.

Anzac Day is sacrosanct. No matter what you think about any particular war, or the behaviour of soldiers in war, we should honour those who fell in the service of the country. That’s the code that transcends questions of left and right wing – and woe betide anyone who draws attention to themselves on this day by violating that. Those who do usually find themselves the subject of disapproving newspaper headlines and scathing editorials, often for days afterwards. And – for once – social media tends to be in lockstep.

This year that code was broken by Jim Wallace, head of the Australian Christian Lobby, via Twitter. He took the opportunity to use Anzac Day to push racist and homophobic slurs:

‘Just hope that as we remember Servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for – wasn’t gay marriage and Islamic!’

It produced instant fury among tweeters, who fired back that Wallace was ‘despicable’, ‘a homophobe’, ‘a bigot’ – well, you get the idea. After about an hour of this, Wallace tweeted an apology:

‘Okay you are right my apologies this was the wrong context to raise these issues. ANZACs mean to much to me to demean this day, not intended.’

Notice that Wallace is not apologising for the sentiment, only the timing. So, on any other day, Wallace thinks it would be perfectly fine for him to link Australian deaths in war to his organisation’s ongoing campaign against same-sex marriage (and queer people in general) – not to mention his preoccupation with some imagined creeping ‘Arab menace’. Just not today.

Remind you of anything – say,

The Australian initially confined its remarks to presenting the story as an example of ‘Twitter outrage’, but by the time The Herald-Sun published its version of events, the spin was well and truly on.

Wallace’s comment had been ‘misinterpreted’. He hadn’t intended to ‘demean our veterans’. But

‘I think that the nature of our society that our soldiers fought for was based on Judeo-Christian heritage.’

Because, apparently, it demeans our veterans to imply they might have fought for equality and respect.

Not to be outdone by News Limited, The Sydney Morning Herald helped Wallace to further rewrite history. It wasn’t that he wanted to say that Australian soldiers hadn’t fought for everyone – why, he’s sure that during the ‘time of Anzacs’, there were ‘not only gays but Afghans in Australia’ (my emphasis). And he should know, after all, because he was a soldier.

The ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’ chestnut was trotted out in the Fairfax media, too, and this time we were treated to a little more justification. Society back then was very different, that’s all he was saying, and we should try to preserve that.

(@Doc_Loki offered the opinion that the late T.E. Lawrence would probably have been very surprised to learn he wasn’t fighting for ‘Islamics’ – given his British government-sanctioned role in assisting the so-called ‘Arab revolt’ against the Ottoman Turks in World War I.)

Fairfax approached the Returned Services League, but couldn’t get a comment. No one, it seems, bothered to contact any of the various Islamic Councils, queer community groups or even the Australian Defence Forces (which now recognise same-sex relationships) until The Sunshine Coast Daily – not exactly the paper with the widest circulation – this evening. (Sadly, even that paper minimised the issue in its headline, calling it merely a ‘gaffe’.)

So the media has pretty much given Wallace a pass, and politicians aren’t talking.

A bit different to how they treated Catherine Deveny’s now-infamous tweet about Bindi Irwin, which resulted in her being sacked from Channel Nine, isn’t it?

Wallace has the ear of the Prime Minister – in fact, his lobby group has unprecedented access to the highest levels of Australian government, under the guise of representing the ‘largest’ religious group in Australia. No other religious organisation – no other community organisation, for that matter – has so much influence on public policy.

This is the group, remember, who vehemently oppose anti-bullying initiatives in schools aimed at breaking down homophobia … who claim that religions (read: their particular religion) should be allowed to discriminate against single parents, queer people, atheists, etc … who actively endorse misinformation and bullying tactics used by anti-abortion activists … and who, apparently, see nothing wrong with twisting statistics, whipping up community outrage and outright lying in order to further their agenda.

(When the ACL’s website comes back up, dig around again. Their stance on Special Religious Instruction in public schools is particularly enlightening.)

Julia Gillard’s staff was definitely watching Twitter today, so they can hardly fail to have seen the deluge of tweets condemning Wallace for his comments, and calling on her to rescind his special access to the office of the Prime Minister. So far, this has been met with a resounding silence – and I’m not holding my breath for this to change any time soon.

Don’t forget that for all her proclaimed atheism, Gillard holds the Christian Bible in special regard. For all her claims that she would treat people of all faiths equally, she has never attempted to redress the imbalance that ensures that the loudest voice she hears is that of a Pentecostal group masquerading as the definitive representative of ‘Australian Christianity’.

Wallace should be publicly repudiated – by the ADF, the RSL, religious organisations and the government. This is not someone waving a placard at a rally. This is someone who claims to be the spokesperson for 13 million people, who co-opted a day of national mourning and remembrance for the purposes of his own bigoted agenda and made a public statement that was blatantly divisive and hateful.

But, it seems, there are double standards everywhere you look. Say you’re an atheist who vehemently criticises the place of religion in Australian society, and you can be fired for an offensive tweet about another celebrity. Say you’re a photographer trying to depict children in an artistic way, and you can find senior politicians taking time out to condemn you for being ‘inappropriate’. Say you’re a Muslim speaking out against racism and Islamophobic policies, and you can find yourself subject to a barrage of criticism on all sides from religious and political leaders.

Say you’re a Christian with a narrow lobby-group agenda taking advantage of a national day to push your bigotry, and you have mainstream media falling over itself to give you a platform to tell everyone that you didn’t mean to make your offensive tweet on a particular day – and you won’t even get rapped over the knuckles for it.

Something there is deeply wrong. If it’s wrong to use Anzac Day to push a radical feminist message, it’s equally wrong to use it to push a religious fundamentalist one. And that’s something the media needs to learn.

I’ll leave it to Ben Cooper of Gay Marriage Rights Australia to make the final – and most important – point:

‘ANZAC day is a day where we can give thanks to these brave men and women, and celebrate our multicultural democracy and our belief in fairness, justice and equality. It is not a day where people vilify our fellow Australian or play politics.’

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.

Lest We Forget.

(Endnote: Wallace deleted his tweet – but of course, nothing is ever really gone on the internet. Thanks to @mikestuchbery for the quick work on the screen capture.)

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