Australia Day and the black-armband view of history

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Two Augusts ago I was in the stands at Brisbane's Exhibition Grounds waiting for the evening performance at the "Ekka" -- Queensland's state fair -- to begin. The crowd stood at attention as a cowgirl on horseback rode around the arena waving a huge Australian flag. The band played and the crowd sang the National Anthem, "Advance, Australia Fair."

Australian flags on display at the opening of the nightly show at the Ekka -- the Royal National Exhibition in Brisbane, Australia, August 2016

There's something about a patriotic display that brings me close to tears, even when it's directed at some other country. Whether it's the crowd at the Last Night of the Proms waving the Union Jack and singing "Land of Hope and Glory," a Welsh men's choir belting out "Men of Harlech," that scene in Casablanca where the customers at Rick's Cafe spontaneously and defiantly sing the "Marseillaise," a group of Augustine Christian Academy students singing along with "Hatikvah" in Israel's Independence Hall, Dorothea Mackellar reciting her poem, "My Country" (see below) -- I get choked up just thinking about it. Love of country is dulce et decorum, sweet and fitting, a sentiment that ought to be honored and cultivated.

But patriotism is everywhere under attack. The advancement of human rights, the extension of human life, and the increase in the standard of living resulting from the spread of western civilization is ignored and the inevitable flaws and failures of any human endeavor are magnified in what conservative Australian political blogger Stephen Cable calls "a black armband view of our past."

We have seen this here in Oklahoma, as an activist convinced the elementary school principals of the Oklahoma City school district that they shouldn't hold re-enactments of the 1889 Land Run, based on the false claim that the run involved murdering Indians. Once nearly all of the schools had dropped the event, the school board voted to ban the celebrations permanently. This in a city that came into existence with an instant population of 10,000 people by sundown the day of the run! In fact, the land had been purchased from the Muscogee Creek tribe pursuant to the post-Civil War 1866 treaty, which also freed slaves owned by the Creeks, granted the Freedmen tribal membership, and granted amnesty to the Creeks who had fought with the Confederacy against the United States. Portions had been allocated to other tribes; the remaining Unassigned Lands were opened for homesteading by land run on April 22, 1889. Oklahoma children are being cheated out of celebrating a unique part of their state's history -- a fun celebration that involves running around outside in pioneer costumes on a spring day -- because of a false narrative pushed by a grievance-monger.

This Friday, January 26, is the 230th anniversary of the date in 1788 that the Governor Arthur Philip of the First Fleet came ashore in Sydney Cove and raised the Union Flag, claiming the continent for the United Kingdom and establishing the first European settlement there. It is an official holiday known as Australia Day, celebrated like America's Independence Day with parades, cookouts, fireworks, flag-flying, and backyard cricket. (All right, the latter doesn't really apply to our Independence Day.) Australia Day falls at the end of the summer holidays and the beginning of a new school year.

Anchor of the H. M. S. Sirius, one of the ships of the First Fleet, on display in Sydney, Australia

Here in Tulsa, the Tulsa Buffaloes, 2017 champion of the US Australian Football Association, will celebrate Australia Day at Veterans Park, their usual venue, on Saturday, January 27, 2018, noon to 4 pm, with a sausage sizzle, some football, some cricket, and followed by further celebrating at Fassler Hall. RSVP and bring a side other than chips.

In recent years, Leftists, intent as they are on destroying civilization so that their socialist utopia can rise from the ashes, have been arguing that Australia Day should be a day of mourning, not celebration, and cultural institutions are beginning to fall in line. This year, Triple J, the state-funded pop music radio network, decided to change the date of their Hottest 100 countdown of listener-selected Australian songs, an Australia Day tradition, because of pressure groups who consider the day offensive to aboriginal Australians. The news release about the move stated, "it was clear most people want the Hottest 100 to be on its own day when everyone can celebrate together," implying that Australia Day isn't something that every Australian can cheer.

Private broadcaster Triple M has stepped in the gap with an "Ozzest 100 countdown." The new Australian Conservatives party responded with a Spotify playlist of 100 songs by Australian bands, leading off with Men at Work's "Down Under," but party leader Sen. Cory Bernardi reported that Spotify briefly pulled the playlist after someone falsely complained of offensive content.

In a recent op-ed, Tony Abbott, a member of Parliament and former Prime Minister of Australia, defended January 26 as the date of Australia's national celebration:

"All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?" asks the John Cleese character in the classic film Life of Brian. It's worth asking the same question of the British settlement of Australia at the same time as we acknowledge the dispossession of the original inhabitants.

Sure, not everything's perfect in contemporary Australia; and it's possible that Aboriginal life could have continued for some time without modernity bursting upon it, had governor Arthur Phillip not raised the Union flag and toasted the king on January 26, 1788, but it's hard to imagine a better Australia in the absence of the Western civilisation that began here from that date. The rule of law, equality of the sexes, scientific curiosity, technological progress, responsible government -- plus the constant self-criticism and lust for improvement that makes us so self-conscious of our collective failings towards Aboriginal people -- all date from then; and may not have been present to anything like the same extent had the settlers fanning out from Sydney Cove been other than British....

The Australia of those days had all that era's faults: women were kept in their place; dissent was barely tolerated; different races were discriminated against; not everyone could vote; few had access to good education and health care. But the spirit that animated the society thus established has subsequently addressed all these issues, not perfectly, but as well as anywhere.

The surest sign of our success (and of the decency and magnanimity that characterises our people) is that the vast majority of Aboriginal Australians are as proud of our country as they are of their indigenous heritage. How could any Australian's heart not beat with pride?

There are 364 other days of the year when we can wear a black armband and strive to overcome our national failures.... But this Friday I will gladly join millions of my fellow Australians to declare my faith in what, to us, is surely the best country on earth.

While I can't agree with Abbott's final statement, I can agree that the world is a better place for the spread of British civilization across the planet. No country is perfect, no country can be perfect this side of the Great Judgment. ("And there's another country I've heard of long ago....") Those countries that have remained faithful to the notions of fair play, rule of law, sanctity of contract, civil liberties, and human dignity that have their roots at Runnymede in 1215 enjoy stability, freedom, peace, and prosperity that is hard to find anywhere else in the world.

Even though it isn't my country's celebration, Australia Day commemorates the arrival of the civilization that turned a continent into a free, peaceful, and prosperous home for over 24 million people. It's a bit more of a nanny state than I like, and the same progressive blight that afflicts our land has spread there as well, but it's still a beautiful place with friendly, hardworking people, thriving cities and towns, and unrivaled landscapes. It's the country that gave the world ANZACs, Vegemite, Bill Kerr, The Seekers, Joan Sutherland, the novels of Nevil Shute, Aussie Rules Football, Olivia Newton John, the Queenslander house, Yvonne Goolagong, beetroot on burgers, the Crocodile Hunter, The Wiggles, Strictly Ballroom, and Dreamfarm kitchen gadgets.

"The Lucky Country," they call it, but it's more accurate to call it a land abundantly blessed by God, not only in its unique fauna and flora, beaches, mountains, deserts, and valleys, but in the civilization that gained its first foothold 230 years ago today. That's worth celebrating, and I'll be happy to raise a bottle of Bundaberg Ginger Ale in honor of the day.

MORE: The Seekers perform "I Am Australian," "Georgy Girl," "Waltzing Matilda," and "Advance, Australia Fair" at the Grand National Final for the Australian Football League at Melbourne Cricket Grounds.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on January 26, 2018 8:39 AM.

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