Come in Spinner: Yes and no

Australian politics – aided by much of the media – is experiencing one of those idea-free periods enjoyed by the US when the know-nothings were around and again with their re-appearance in Tea Party form.

To be precise of course, neither the know-nothings nor the Tea Party actually knew/know nothing but rather knew/know things which were/are just plain wrong.

This week’s Melbourne University Festival of Ideas, curated by Patrick McCaughey, featured two outstanding historians who have done an enormous amount to stimulate ideas about how we come to know ‘history’, how views of history shape identity and how we have come to get our beliefs about that history wrong.

David Cannadine spoke at the Festival on nationalism and national identity and canvassed various historians’ views about the origins of nationalism – starting with those who felt nationalism (and national stereotypes) can be dated to late medieval and early modern times through to those who see it as the characteristic feature of late 19th century history plus post-World War One Wilsonian insistence on self-determination.

In a carefully argued lecture he outlined that nearly all supposedly distinctively national states comprised multiple nationalities and diverse populations.

What was actually distinctive about them was the extent to which the “imagined communities” were shaped by how we see, or are encouraged to see, our history and how that shapes our sense of identity.

Now while this would be seen by the history warriors as typical academic liberal elite stuff to be scoffed at, the striking thing about the presentation was his conclusion. He had asked the question: is the nation state the most important shaper of identity or is the nation state less important and less clearly defined than we think. His answer: Yes and no.

Listening to him it struck me that this sort of answer is one of the major things missing from ideas in Australian politics and, particularly, the Australian media. The concept that many major questions need a yes and no answer can hardly survive in an environment in which three word slogans and invented narrative are substituted for reasoned discussion and analysis.

Equally our national narrative is shaped by political and media nonsense about Gallipoli, our troops and our wars, the outback and Australian resilience and the absence of material about massacres and all the other elements of ‘black-armband’ history. Our national identity is shaped by deliberate omissions and distortions. We are not unique in this and Professor Cannadine gave a useful summary of 19th century historians who saw their task as helping shape a national state and a national sense of how unique their nation was. In the 20th century, as he pointed out, the French historian Fernand Braudel even had it both ways. In the 1940s he argued that history was shaped by geography, climate, demography and long developments rather than national factors. By the end of his life his last works were about the distinctive, and exceptional, nature of France and the French. He had been captured by the French conventional wisdom. While it is easy to sneer at the French belief in their uniqueness it is, qualitatively, no different from the views of many English and US citizens.

Ian Macfarlane’s comments this week about media economic coverage as an invented narrative imposed on economic data is a corollary to our invented historical narrative and both are equally destructive to good policy.

So far so good – there is after all nothing dramatically new in Cannadine’s view even though it was presented brilliantly and in away which made you think afresh about the ideas.

His wife, Linda Colley (also a Princeton Professor), spoke the next day on how constitutions shape national identity – comparing and contrasting constitutional history in the UK, the US and Australia.

She described the ‘cult of the constitution’ in the US and reminded us that most US citizens haven’t read it, are unaware of what is in and are adamant that some things which aren’t in it actually are. For instance, the overwhelming majority of Americans are astonished to be told the word ‘God’ doesn’t appear there and don’t believe it when so informed.

Professor Colley also highlighted that distinctive English hypocrisy (without using the word naturally) about the superiority of their ‘unwritten constitution’ to the ‘paper’ constitutions of others while simultaneously writing such ‘paper’ constitutions for disparate colonies and countries.

Basically how we come to see constitutions and what role they play in our ‘imagine community’ is shaped more by how politics and media frame the constitution’s role than by the reality.

There was much, much more in both lectures (Colley’s comments on John Dunmore Lang were a delight for instance) which were live streamed on the Festival website and will be available after the Festival end in an archive website.

But it was interesting to sit and listen to ideas, respectful questions from the floor uninformed by prefatory declamations about the identity and proclivities of the questioner (if only Writers’ Weeks could achieve the same) and see that ideas are being discussed and thought about in Australia.

None of it is likely to get a guernsey on Alan Jones but perhaps Labor might re-discover its soul, and the Opposition re-discover some intellectual credibility, if someone took a deep breath and in answer to a complex policy question had the courage to say: well yes and no.