Last week, The Institute of Public Affairs released a report on the teaching of history in Australian universities. It reminded me of my own times as a student. Particularly the day we filled a fellow undergrad’s dorm room with balloons from floor to ceiling. Both we and the IPA engaged in a top-flight, time-consuming instance of trolling. And in both instances, we were richly rewarded. While I don’t think anyone actually broke down in tears at the IPA’s stunt, they did reap a fine harvest of media corn. The ire of actual academic historians must have been an added bonus.
I’m not that interested in the conclusions of the IPA’s research but I am fascinated by what it reveals about the mindset and obsessions of Australian conservatives. In short, conservatives are obsessed with history. The History Wars raged in the early years of this millennium, providing a minor buzzing in background of Australian Idol. The IPA are attempting to revive the history wars in much the same way that Guy Sebastian’s latest album is attempting to revive his career – and with as much success. Nevertheless, the history wars will not go away for two stark reasons.
The first is ideological. Conservatives seek political legitimation in history. They are animated by a nostalgia for pasts both real and imagined. Nostalgia is a perfect word – partly because it derives from the ancient Greek for an ache for a lost home but also because it was an invention of the seventeenth century long after the ancient Greeks were dead. Reading the work of prominent conservative journalists in the News Corp press, I get the sense they long for the 50s and 60s of their childhoods (or the childhoods of their parents). Science or Economics cannot validate or embody these urges but History can. History is the main source of political legitimation for the conservative project and it therefore must be fought for.
Now this has some delicious ironies. It is ironic that conservatives worship history because so do their sworn enemies – communists. Marx proclaimed a world without God but guided by the Scientific Laws of History. Although Marx’s God feels more Old Testament, a demiurge to the conservatives’ New Testament History-as-exemplar. It is also ironic that the periods that conservatives hark back to (especially the bland bliss of Post-War Menzies) were also the times when the Western world was at its most explicitly socialist and collective. The memory can play tricks.
The second reason that the history wars will not go away are demographic. Australia has an ageing population. And as we age, we lose ourselves to history and memories. For my entire life, I have been told by old people how terrible the modern world is. The world with fewer people in poverty than ever, with reduced infant mortality and longer lifespans. This waking nightmare of bounty and ease. But when your body is failing, your loved ones are dead, and your dreams are nearly extinguished, that all sounds academic. Religion may be the Opium of the People but History is the Oxycontin of the Aged. The pull of the past will be ever stronger for a greying population. The struggle to control it will escalate.
Do not expect the history wars to disappear. If you live in and for the past (or your memory of it) then you will fight for them forever. Academic historians will be bystanders in this battle. University students will also be acceptable casualties. Good history (white blindfold, western civilization, etc) will be pitted against bad history (black armband, identity politics, delete as appropriate). The tragedy here is that while history influences the present and the future, it does not decide them. We must focus on how we forge a different future. We must seek out new mistakes to make. Or we can just fall back into the easy ways of the elaborate troll, falling back into gravitation pull of the black hole of history.