What is a nation?

Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price’s National Press Club speech has generated a lot of publicity – mainly about whether what she said was accurate or not – which it transparently wasn’t.

Senator Price, when asked if she felt there were any ongoing, negative impacts of colonisation on Indigenous Australians, replied “No, there’s no ongoing negative impacts of colonisation” – despite a literature which would fill a library demonstrating that she is wrong.

Her comments are an insight into the historiographical problem of what constitutes a nation, what contributes to nationalism and national memory and how it all gets distorted.

Such problems were addressed in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Invention of Scotland which looked at how much of Scottish history is infected by myth and legend. Eric Hobsbawm’s and Terence Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition, which looks at similar problems, is one of the most important and revelatory historical works published in modern times. There is also an increasing historical interrogation of national myths of countries from Russia and the US to Australia and Ireland.

Senator Price, in the vein discussed in these works, argued that conversation around colonisation and its ongoing impacts can do harm – which is true according to the reflexive attitudes of a passionate woke observer – but hardly what you would expect from a Coalition parliamentarian supposedly talking about history.

But the bigger problem is not the discussion of the problem (which she also says doesn’t exist as well as saying it is harmful to discuss it) but rather ignoring what W.E.H. Stanner talked about in his Boyer lecture, After the Dreaming. In it he described a ‘cult of forgetfulness’ which he termed ‘the Great Australian Silence’ in which Australians don’t just fail to acknowledge the atrocities of the past, but choose to not think about them at all, to the point of forgetting that these events ever happened.

It also raises the issues Ernst Renan discussed in his speech What is a Nation? delivered at the Sorbonne in March 1882. There he said: “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things which properly speaking are really one and the same constitutes this soul. One is the past, the other is the present. One is the possession of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in heritage that we have jointly receive.”

“Messieurs, man (it was the 19th century after all) does not improvise. The nation, like the individual, is the outcome of a long past of efforts, sacrifices, and devotions,” he said.

Renan also said: “Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation and it is for this reason that the progress of historical studies often poses a threat to nationality and results in the belief that ‘deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations’ must be extinguished.

“A great aggregation of men (again remember this was in 1882) in sane mind and warm heart create a moral conscience that calls itself a nation,” Renan said.

Meanwhile, back at Voice media coverage the major dailies did their usual job on the Yes marches. The Age managed to underestimate the number of marchers by 20,000 according to the difference between their and police estimates. The Herald-Sun pushed it off the front page for Ron Barassi. The Australian put it on the front page but the headline made it clear they regarded it as a one-day wonder.

It was almost reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 when Hal says: “Wisdom cries out in the streets and no man regards it.” Bit like where Shakespeare got it from – Proverbs 1:20 “Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets.”