How ‘change the date’ activists saved Australia Day

The debate over Australia Day seems simple at first; Australia Day, the national holiday of Australia, is set on the same date as the First Fleet’s arrival in Sydney. Some argue that this isn’t particularly representative of Australia; it honors the date of the establishment of a small British colony and thus doesn’t particularly hold any relevance to Australians of non-British ancestry. More pointedly, it is argued that the date is offensive to Indigenous Australians, because it is the date at which the colonization of Australia began, and thus was the precursor to several acts of injustice against the Indigenous Australian community.

In other words, the debate around Australia Day is really just an extension of the history wars: debates over positivist versus postmodernist methodology in history, and the overall issue of what might be called post-colonial guilt or white guilt. This debate of course has an impact on the issue of Australian identity, and in particular whether or not Australians of British (or generally European) descent should feel some sort of guilt or shame over past events which they are not responsible for.

Professor Richard Nile once argued that in the wake of the election of Kevin Rudd and the government’s issuing of an apology to the Stolen Generation, ‘the culture and history wars are over’. Nile clearly believed that saying sorry would provide for a national moment of healing, where the sins of the past were confronted and properly repented for, and we could all move beyond a culture of guilt-and-grievance.

Professor Nile was spectacularly wrong. Similar ‘moment of healing’ logic was frequently deployed in the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama to the US Presidency, but race relations in the United States only managed to deteriorate over the course of his tenure. Similarly, in the post-Rudd era racial consciousness has not diminished and instead of becoming a more post-racial, individualistic society, Australia has become much more ethnicity-focused. In both cases the ascendancy of Intersectional Social Justice ideology amongst the intelligentsia is clearly at least partly responsible for this development.

Arguably the debate over Australia Day is an example of what Brendan O’Neill calls ‘the politics of therapy’. The issue isn’t whether or not Australian governments or administrations committed atrocities against the Indigenous Australian community; everyone agrees that these happened. The real issue in this debate is identity and how we should feel about our identities. The social justice view is that Australia should not have a positive civic nationalism because Australia is an atrociously racist nation built atop a mountain of black bodies. Australia, and in particular ‘white’ Australia, needs to center its identity on national guilt and repentance, for they have absolutely nothing to be proud of. Conversely, Indigenous Australians are encouraged to embrace a positive ethnonationalism built around their heroic resistance to the evils of westernization.

The reality is, for most contemporary Australians, Australia Day is relatively vacuous. Most Australians don’t see the First Fleet as their forefathers, and many Australians don’t know why Australia Day is set at the specific date it is. For a large number of Australians, Australia Day is nothing more than a day to celebrate Australia, and all but a vanishingly small fraction of Australians have an inclusive view of ‘Australian-ness’ that welcomes peaceful immigrants, non-whites, non-Christians and non-heterosexuals (as demonstrated by the recent plebiscite).

What this means is that the popular narrative about Australia Day is entirely created by the activists against the current date. This produces an ironic outcome; social justice activism in favor of changing Australia Day has actually created legitimate reasons to celebrate the date from a classical liberal perspective.

Why? Because social justice activism has filled the narrative vacuum with their own narrative; they see the arrival of the First Fleet as the start of both a biological and cultural genocide driven by the sinister capitalistic logic of an inherently oppressive Western civilization which rationalized its own depravity through recourse to the ideals of the Enlightenment, which according to social justice, underpinned scientific racism and the lie that indigenous populations are uncivilized and savage. As such the symbolic meaning of Australia Day is now a reckoning with the issue of Western civilization and the ideals of the Enlightenment, and whether or not these things have any value or claim to moral goodness. Did the First Fleet bring anything good with them at all?

Social Justice advocates such as Arika Waulu (of WAR) answer ‘no’. As Waulu stated ‘we want it (Australia Day) to be abolished until there’s something to celebrate’, implying that there is nothing to celebrate at all. They reject the principles of Enlightenment modernity as evil, as the creations of ‘straight white cisgender able-bodied males’ and thus attempts to subjugate others. They see modernity, industrialization and capitalism as a secular Fall Of Man, and romanticize tribal life as an egalitarian and fulfilling existence. They see the tragic cruelties towards Indigenous Australians during the settlement of Australia not as betrayals of modern Western liberal ideals, but rather as something innate to these ideals and as an original sin that all white Australians should feel perpetual guilt for.

Through perpetuating this narrative, social justice advocates have created a reason to celebrate Australia Day. Yes, the colonization of Australia often involved acts of depravity. No, Australia was not set up with the explicit purpose of embodying Enlightenment ideals and has never been an ideology-based nation. The date of the arrival of the First Fleet marked nothing more than the establishment of Britain’s latest colony and an additional dumping ground for human refuse. But, according to the narrative of Intersectional Social Justice, that date was also the start of a great cultural downward spiral due to the introduction of the disease known as Western civilization.

Just as the so-called Fall of Man was actually the start of our ascent, the so-called Fall of Australia was actually the start of something great. In spite of all the atrocities that were inflicted upon the native population, modern Australia is a prosperous, relatively peaceful, tolerant, welcoming, cosmopolitan, technologically advanced, relatively free, safe and comfortable society. This simply would not have happened if Australia remained untouched by European settlement.

For all of the flaws of Australia, its semi-liberal legal framework contains several prerequisites for widespread prosperity, such as the rule of law and property rights. With European settlement came the formalized scientific method; for all the racist pseudoscience which once existed, the method of science at least provides a self-correction mechanism to weed out such fallacies. Europeans may have brought new diseases and new species to the Australian continent, yet they also brought medical science and new methods of agriculture. European settlement managed to create a prosperous and relatively-free society on an extremely harsh continent, within the space of two centuries. These are cultural achievements; whatever one’s taste in art or one’s evaluation of the Christian tradition, it is indisputable that European settlement brought at least some incredible achievements to this continent, and we should celebrate those achievements.

Yet again, social justice warriors have shot themselves in the foot. Through weaving an anti-Enlightenment narrative and casting Western civilization as a cruel despotism with no redeeming features, through indulging in romanticist fantasies about idyllic Indigenous life and seeing modernity as the Fall Of Man, they defined the terms of the debate. Is the European settlement of Australia something that brought any good along with it? Is modernity something to be celebrated? Is a modern, broadly-liberal, technologically advanced, wealthy, somewhat-individualistic civilization a good place to be? Is such a civilization better than living in premodern subsistence tribalism? I answer yes, and this is why I support celebrating Australia Day on the 26th of January.

Andrew Russell

1 Comment on "How ‘change the date’ activists saved Australia Day"

  1. I have no problem with identifying and acknowledging past European abuses of indigenous Australians.

    However, the saying “Historically people have been more oppressed by their own governments than foreign governments” is relevant to indigenous Australians as they inform us they had their own tribal governance as well as culture.

    Even a superficial search of aboriginal history (see links below) soon brings to light that the abuses inflicted on aboriginal people by other aboriginal people both pre and post 1788 greatly exceeds that by Europeans. Moreover, much of that has little to do with European colonisation and more with centuries or more of entrenched aboriginal culture.

    So let’s be fair and acknowledge ALL aspects of EVERYBODY’S history and culture.

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