Geoff Johnson: ‘Presentism’ denies history’s ugly realities

‘Presentism” is the practice of applying 2020 cultural expectations and values to some 18th- or 19th-century events we’d rather forget. “Presentism” is comfortable because it encourages a kind of morally superior self-congratulation by interpreting the past as it suits us.

Denial of the past would mean that the truth of the country’s history becomes something best forgotten in the interests of generational comfort.

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There is an increasing tendency to prefer that such and thus events in the past just did not happen and if it did, like Dorothy, we could cause it to simply disappear by wishing it away.

But pulling down statues and changing building and street names and references to the past for better or worse is regarded by many, including the Irish side of my family, as a perilous path.

About 10 per cent of Australians, including me and my maternal cousins, can trace our ancestry back to the arrival of English prison boats, from 1778 onward.

Those boats carried chained English and Irish convicts, some convicted for stealing as little as a loaf of bread, to Botany Bay, New South Wales.

According to our resident family history expert, the early boats contained one of my ancestors.

That connection leaves me three choices as how to deal with my family’s and, subsequently the country’s, history: Firstly, I can research the background to the brutal atrocities visited upon those unfortunates as described in Robert Hughes’ well-researched history of those times The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding.

Or, as a second choice, I could research the reasons why my maternal Irish ancestors where arrested by my paternal English ancestors for no really substantial “crime” and were sentenced to the lethal horrors of transportation.

A third choice would be to just pretend none of this ever happened and embark upon a crusade to eliminate any trace of that dark history and the thinking that created it.

Today, however, having a convict ancestor is a matter of pride amongst Australians; a connection to the rough and tumble of early Australia.

Nonetheless, the Australian government is wrestling with a movement demanding the removal of the statues of 18th- and 19th-century colonizers who used newly arrived convicts as slaves and subjugated Indigenous people to the point of genocide.

Other voices argue that hiding horrible and violent aspects of history means that people will not only lose any full understanding of the past, but that this lack of understanding risks diluting ongoing discussion of why those practices of the past must never be accepted again.

The statues, they insist, should remain, but with a broader and more commonly accepted understanding that, by current standards, those historical figures might have founded the nation, but did some pretty awful things in the process — again, by current standards.

So far so good, but removing statues and monuments to those who, at the time, while establishing nationhood, led Canada down the now-unacceptable path of closing our borders to refugees, racism, Indigenous residential schools, social and economic inequity, restricted voting, imprisonment without benefit of legal process or even indentured servitude changes nothing.

It is, in some ways, the worst form of “presentism,” which denies the ugly realities of some of the less-worthy aspects of a nation’s history.

Good for us, we say, wipe all traces of that away, even though we know that there still are today influential political voices advocating the rejection of science, refusal to accept refugees from certain countries or religions, rejection of multiculturalism, the alienation of one province from another or the divide between Indigenous communities and everybody else.

Attempting to rewrite history by word or deed, tearing down statues and renaming buildings can be a dangerous path. George Orwell, the prophetic author of the dystopian 1984, wrote that “Who controls the past controls the future,” meaning that denying the wrongs of the past provides no defence against those same wrongs erupting again in some form in the future.

Hiding what might have warned us against what once was thought acceptable could enable acceptability again.

Germany is a modern example of refusal to deny an ugly past. Modern Germany understands only too well what Nazism wrought upon the country. Subsequent leadership is committed to the prevention of a militarized and politicized national police force, such as Heinrich Himmler’s Gestapo, which was used as cudgel by an authoritarian state.

Today, the German federal police force, the Bundespolizei, organizes annual trips for its members to Holocaust memorials.

There is no thought of closing or destroying those memorials to man’s ever-present potential for inhumanity and cruelty. Those grim reminders remain even as an American president describes a swastika-waving, Nazi-saluting crowd of avowed white supremacists as “some who are good people.”

In terms of setting aside the distasteful events of the past by removing statues and the names of buildings, Alex Haley wrote: “Either you deal with what is the reality, or you can be sure that the reality is going to deal with you.”

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools and history teacher.

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