Metaphors of Light and Darkness: The Politics of `Black Armband' History

By McKenna, Mark | Melbourne Journal of Politics, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Metaphors of Light and Darkness: The Politics of `Black Armband' History


McKenna, Mark, Melbourne Journal of Politics


   We are witnessing a deliberate attack on our values, a deliberate attack on
   those who wish to promote merit and excellence, a deliberate attack on our
   heritage and our past. And there are those who gnaw away at our national
   self-respect, rewriting (our) history as centuries of unrelieved doom,
   oppression and failure -- as days of hopelessness, not days of hope.
   (Margaret Thatcher, My Vision, 1975)(1).

On March 12 1997, the University of Melbourne's Australia Centre organised a seminar on the issue of `black armband' history, a term first coined by Professor Geoffrey Blainey in his 1993 Latham lecture,(2) and one eagerly taken up by those occasional bedfellows, John Howard and Pauline Hanson, following the election of the Howard government in March 1996.(3)

The seminar attracted considerable publicity, due in part to the presence of historian and former Keating speech writer Don Watson. Watson commenced his paper with a mild rebuke.

   This forum should have happened a couple of years ago when the terms `black
   armband history' and `guilt industry' first crept into national debates.
   The history profession should have felt the insult and let it be known.
   Historians should have recognised it as a pernicious, philistine and
   politically motivated assault on their profession.(4)

While sympathising with Watson's plea for a more pugnacious historical profession, I want to suggest that his representation of the black armband debate is incomplete. In this paper, I advance three arguments which challenge Watson's perspective and question the prevailing conceptions surrounding the current debate.(5)

First, the terms `guilt industry' and `black armband', at least in spirit if not word, have been a common feature of political debate in Australia for much longer than the `last couple' of years. We err if we date the debate from Blainey's Latham lecture in 1993. John Howard's attempt to denounce the black armband view of history is merely the most recent manifestation of a conservative offensive on the use of historical revisionism which began in the early 1980s.

Second, although Geoffrey Blainey may have coined the phrase `black armband history' in 1993, he was not the first to apply the words `black armband' in the context of Australian history. This was done by Aboriginal Australians through their emphasis on historical dispossession in the years before the bicentennial celebrations. In a manner which bears the bitter irony of much appropriation of Aboriginal culture, Blainey used two words also found in the Aboriginal protest movement, added the word `history', and managed to transform a spirit of mourning and defiance into a brand mark of gloom and disloyalty.

Third, and perhaps most crucial, much of the public discussion surrounding John Howard's adoption of the black armband phrase mistakenly focuses on the issue of its historical validity. Don Watson, for example, sees Howard's foray as an attack "on the historical profession".(6) Broadsheet columnists set out to unravel the debate by assessing the work of various historians; searching in vain for the black armband or white blindfold school of Australian history.(7) While there has been a fiercely contested debate within the historical profession over issues of emphasis, perspective, and methodology encouraged by the critical frameworks of the new histories, and associated in particular with the revisionism of particular historians such as Clark, Reynolds, Lake and Burgmann, it is important to distinguish the professional debate from the much broader political debate.(8) The Blainey-Howard assault on black armband history is not so much an attack on the historical profession as a political strategy. It is concerned more with the use of history than the nature of history.

A better way of understanding the Government-led campaign against black armband history is to view the phrase `black-armband' as yet another metaphor in the Howard government's armoury of political slogans--another conscript in the cause of defending the mainstream. …

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