It’s Australia Day again — a time for beer, barbeques and belligerent historical debate. With its flags and face paint, Australia Day is officially a patriotic celebration of ‘what’s great about Australia.’ Yet every year the holiday sparks heated discussions among many Australians over their country’s past and its legacy.

The reason? Australia Day falls on the 26th January, marking the arrival of the first British convict fleet in 1788. Since that event heralded the onset of European colonisation of the continent, it has been argued that what the day really celebrates is the beginning of indigenous dispossession and maltreatment. Hence the slew of alternative names, like Survival Day and Invasion Day, and the well-known campaign for the date to be changed.

This article isn’t going to weigh up arguments for and against moving the date of Australia Day — there are enough of those already — though I make no attempt to hide my opinion on the matter (i.e. just change the damn date).

Instead, it’s worth spending a few minutes to consider why the debate has become so passionate. The trouble is that for many people Australia Day is about both patriotism, which is subjective, and history, which is — or ought to be — objective. The two don’t mix well. As the literary giant Goethe put it, with uncharacteristic brevity: ‘patriotism ruins history.’

The resulting use and abuse of history to fuel national pride has all the rigid scholarship of Indiana Jones. Consider this a beginner’s guide in how not to do history.

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(And before you sit back and relax, safe in the knowledge that this is just another weird thing Antipodeans do: the lessons Australia Day can teach us apply to any country that tends to feel patriotic about its past. Which is to say, all of them.)


1. Make it personal.

Your country’s history is your history. It matters to you personally and people need to respect that. OK, so you don’t know any of the people on board that 1788 convict fleet. Nor can you take credit for the establishment of the Australian state, given that it took place many, many years before you were born. In fact, isn’t it a bit weird to take pride in anything, past or present, that you didn’t have a hand in? Just because I happen to live in the same country as Shakespeare, for instance, doesn’t mean that I am entitled to feel proud of the playwright. I also happen to live in the same country as Paul Dacre and Nigel Farage, and I’m certainly not taking any personal credit for their actions.

2. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Because it’s personal, don’t let anyone be mean about your country’s history. After all, it’s as if they’re being mean about you. And, you know, that hurts your feelings. Flag waving isn’t nearly so fun when you consider that you’re waving the banner of a country that has oppressed minorities for centuries. This sensitivity might explain why Barnaby Joyce, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, told Australia Day protesters to ‘crawl under a rock and hide’ rather than criticise his Australia Day celebrations, or why new history textbooks in Texas conveniently don’t tell school kids about the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow laws.

3. Actually, don’t think of history as a discipline to be studied.

More of a feel-good story to give us a boost when we’re feeling low. Our country’s history, if it’s to fire our patriotism, needs an inspiring narrative and an exciting cast of characters: prophecy and destiny, heroes and villains (the latter usually foreign), grave threats and courageous victories (again, usually over foreigners). If the past were just a series of events, often brutal and unfair, how would that help us believe that the country we happen to live in also happens to be the best in the world?

The irony here is that the patriots who insist we handle our country’s history with respect are the very same people who, by pummelling the past into something resembling 10,000 BC, treat it pretty callously. The more patriotic the past becomes, the less room there is for history; conversely, the more honestly and critically we look at the past, the less patriotic it tends to feel.

Critics will point out that these lessons are equally applicable to those indigenous Australians who challenge Australia Day by asking that their history also be treated with pride and respect. This is true, although it’s not a popular thing to say. However, the crucial difference here is that, for Australia’s indigenous people, 1788 and its consequences are not simply a matter of history, but of the present. They continue to be experienced every day.

And only now do we begin to get a real understanding of the importance of history. Wherever we live, grappling with our country’s past is crucial — not because it can inspire our patriotism, but because it can help explain and redress the problems people live with today.

So Australia Day might have one good lesson to teach us, after all.🔷

(This piece was first published in The Blog!)

(Cover: Dreamstime / Robot100.)