Why history matters with Marilyn Lake


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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast. I am your host Matt Smith and I'm here today with Professor Marilyn Lake from the History Department. Thank you for joining me Marilyn.

Marilyn Lake:

Good afternoon.

Matt Smith:

So, you're here to talk to me today about why history matters?

Marilyn Lake:

Yeah. Well, history matters deeply which is why people become so passionately engaged in debates about history. It's been very interesting with our last few prime ministers, particularly John Howard that he was so invested in having his account of Australian history triumph as it were. And he battled the version that he called the black armband history because he wanted Australia's record to be one of achievement, proud achievement. So, what we think about the past and our understanding of the past vitally affect the present and our sense of identity and our sense of who we are.

Matt Smith:

Does that kind of come back to history being written by the victors, that saying?

Marilyn Lake:

Yes. One of the ways in which history has been written is by the victors. But of course for some time now, we've had very strong challenges to the victors by those who've lost out or been oppressed or exploited in various ways. And that's why aboriginal history has become so powerful in the last 20 years or so. And the histories about the Stalin generations and about massacres and about disposition. Those histories have all come up from below so to speak. And they have all had large purchase on the public. They've got considerable persuasive, rhetorical power.

Equally women's history had quite an impact in the last 20 years or so, as women sought to rewrite Australian history both to show the ways in which history had marginalized women in the past, but also to demonstrate the ways in which women's actions and women's mobilizations and what women thought and did were really important in both changing the past and in producing the society we have today.

So, there's a continual contest between narratives and between people with various investments in the past.

Matt Smith:

And is it therefore, a historian's duty just to present the facts?

Marilyn Lake:

Prime Minister Howard used to say that he wanted history to be a straightforward narrative and not a stew of themes and issues. But of course, that begs the question, which narrative? There are a whole variety of possible narratives that you could tell for example about Australian history.

One of the stories we tell about Australian history in our recent book, the book I wrote with Henry Reynolds called “Drawing the Global Colour Line” was about the way that Australia led the world indeed. But it led the world in a project that we might not feel so happy about now which was in White Australia in conceptualizing a nation in racially homogeneous terms. And in saying that this was crucial to national greatness.

Now, when Australia enacted the White Australia policy in 1901, it was also an export to the world. And I was very proud of this experiment and indeed it's true that other nations followed suit, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, the United States.

United States didn't bring racially restrictive immigration policy until 1924, some many years after we did in 1901. So that narrative about Australia, which both sets Australia in its world context, which I think is really important, but it also tries to explain why Australia had such an investment in racial homogeneity and how that shaped our past as well as our current society. I mean, it keeps coming back to me when I hear reports about the latest attacks on Indian students. You know there's a long history to this in Australia.

You asked before about facts, Prime Minister Rudd as opposed to Howard. He drew the same sort of distinction, but he said he wanted straight fact and not too much interpretation. He said this in the launch of Thomas Keneally's new volume 1 of “History of Australia." But again you can't have facts without interpretation. It's interpretation that defines historical facts. If you don't have an interpretation, there are no facts. So, for example, to go back to the legislation that enacted the White Australia policy in 1901, they're all facts, but they will only become fact if you told that sort of story.

If you just want to tell a story about Australian achievement and Australian values and how great we are, then you might just tell the story of ANZAC for example and go back to Gallipoli in 1915, which conveniently enables the White Australia policy to be left behind. I think it's no accident that 1915 is quite a convenient start to a new history. You know Australia's creation story at Gallipoli in 1915.

So, the fact that you choose would depend on your interpretation and that in turn would depend on the narrative that you want to write.

Matt Smith:

Should that sort of thing really be a worry to modern Australia though? I mean the White Australia policy as terrible as it was, wasn't enacted by any Australians who are alive today.

Marilyn Lake:

If you only thought, the only history that mattered was when if people are still alive who live through it, you would have a very short history.

What history is about is understanding the past. I don't believe really in casting judgments on the past. A lot of people do and I guess that you can't write about the past without implications of judgment. But nevertheless the primary aim of historians is to explain the past and to help our understanding of the past.

So, in telling of the story of the White Australia policy, I'm putting in its global frame. What we're doing is explaining how that came about. And as I tried to say, at the time they were really proud of it. It was no way a cause for embarrassment or shame. Perhaps the trouble for historian to explain why that was the case. Why they were really proud of it and proudly exported it to the world.

I think also that all of our past lives on. The past just always in the present. There are legacies to the past, with which we still grapple. I mean, this is most obvious of course with the disposition of indigenous people because that's not about to be reversed. They'll be efforts of compensation and redress but Europeans are not about to leave Australia. You can't overturn the past in that way.

So, the past always lives on. I mean, another example is the exclusion of women from political power. Now, that's of course now starting to be redress. We have Julia Gillard as the first woman deputy prime minister and maybe the first women prime minister to be. But women are still minority in politics. That's the legacy of the past.

You can't understand that without understanding the way democracy was first conceptualized as democracy for white men. The only people who have the right to vote in the 1850s were white men. All the other groups of people had to fight their way back in. And it's going to take some considerable time for that legacy to be outgrown. So, of course it's really important for us to know the past.

Matt Smith:

Do you think we're learning from it at all though or are we making the same mistakes again? It's kind of telling though that John Howard was worried about how he'd be remembered. If that was an issue of it at all, then you'd think he would have made wiser decisions?

Marilyn Lake:

Well, he obviously felt they were the right decisions. People used to say 10 years ago about John Howard that he was an opportunist, that he was populist and that he followed Pauline Hanson and that he listened to what opinion polls said. I think that was completely wrong about Howard.

Howard believe deeply in all his various reforms as he saw them. I mean, economic reforms as well as abolishing multiculturalism, as we well as refusing the black armband view of history. He believed passionately in those things. And if you believe passionately in them, I mean, paradoxically, yes he was concerned about how he would judged, but he believed so dearly, he wasn't about to change his mind for fear that he might be judged badly. He simply argued those positions all the more strongly.

In some ways, it's interesting to me that Howard was much more passionately engaged with history than Rudd is. I don't think Rudd cares about history very much.

He doesn't care about it in the way that Howard did, which is interesting. It's an interesting question why he doesn't. I mean, of course he made the symbolic gesture of saying sorry and that was one of his inaugurating moments that he's no doubt very proud of. But he quickly moved on. I mean, it was as if having made amends in that way, having said sorry, he was able to put the past behind him and engage with the present.

I mean, Rudd is much more into present-day policy. I just don't think he cares that much about history. And when Howard used to say, “I don't believe in feeling guilty about things I didn't personally do.” He completely missed the point about the importance of the office of prime minister.

People weren't asking Howard to personally say sorry, they were asking him only in his capacity as prime minister, speaking on behalf of the nation, as a political leader. It's in that capacity he should have said sorry and rather understood that.

Matt Smith:

Do you think that history is going to remember current events well or that people will learn from things that are happening now? Is this going to be an ongoing thing?

Marilyn Lake:

Yeah. It's a popular idea that I don't know who first said it. But if we don't learn from the past, we're doomed to repeat it. Was it Lennon or something? It doesn't sort of quite grab me really that idea because I guess historians will always emphasize that every moment in the past is distinctive and unique. They're never the same. So that I'm not sure how anyone would learn a lesson from the past that enable them to prevent something bad happening because the circumstances are always different.

But you said that Howard current circumstances be recorded in the future. Well, that depends on what narratives people want to tell. There will be a narrative I guess about climate change and what people did or didn't do. There'll be a narrative about, for example why we did or not win a Republic. What's an interesting question is why Australia has never yet embraced Republicanism. Depends, as I said which narratives you want to tell. By the way on that, I was recently asked to contribute to a volume of essays on turning points in world history.

Now, the only turning point, in which Australia figures in world history, Australia was the first country in the world to grant full political rights to women in 1902. Isn't that interesting to know? It's the only field in which Australia genuinely participated in a world historic turning point. After millennia, thousands of years, women had never had full political rights, the capacity as political equals to engage in self-government. Australia is the first in the world historically in 1902. That is, I think that's really exciting to think about. And very interesting that that's the only moment according to these editors and I think they're right, in which Australia has a world first, as it were.

Matt Smith:

Were they following our example though, or just doing the same thing? There's a bit of a difference.

Marilyn Lake:

Both of course. Because once a democratic country has taken the bold step of enfranchising women and giving them equal political rights, then other countries, for example the Unites States or Britain, can look to see what happens. Will it be a disaster? What will happen? Will it be the end of the world? Will they make really terrible decisions?

So, of course the eyes of the world were on Australia for that moment to see what was happening. And Australian feminist leaders were quite well aware of their pioneering status. They went afterwards to the beknighted countries of Britain and United States and said, “Look, we've done it. This is what you should do.” And they had Vida Goldstein for example, who was one of our early women's movement leader. She went to the United States and she was given a special reception by the President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 because she was the ambassador of this very special country.

Matt Smith:

Marilyn, thank you for your time.

Marilyn Lake:

Thank you.