Flat White

Julia Baird’s monumental confusion

16 June 2020

2:01 PM

16 June 2020

2:01 PM

Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with what the left are thinking. But thankfully we always have the internet to remind us of what they have previously said. For example, last weekend, Julia Baird had an article in the Nine Entertainment chipwrappers with the title, “The toppling of statues is enriching not erasing history and it has thrilled my heart”. The heart of her argument for cultural iconoclasm was as follows: 

One of the more perplexing arguments made in recent days is that toppling, relocating or removing old statues amounts to the erasure of history. It is in fact the very opposite: it is history. To seek a fuller understanding of the past is not wrecking, but restoring, salvaging and deepening history.

History is not just a set of facts but a series of questions, a mode of inquiry that seeks to comprehend and put flesh on dates, events and places, to understand and include all possible perspectives, all while knowing that, until about 50 years ago, history was almost solely written by white men, about white men.

 But the thing that undermines Baird woke thesis is that it is completely opposite to what she herself had said in 2017 for The Sydney Morning Herald. Commenting on the historical value of the statue of Queen Victoria—of whom Baird published a full-length biography—currently residing opposite Sydney Town Hall (ironically a reject saved from storage in a shed in Dublin as problematic and brought here by the developers who rescued the QVB in the eighties), Baird wrote: 

We don’t need to scramble to pull all flawed figures from our past – for surely few could ever remain…

I don’t like tearing old things down, even those that remind us of our shortcomings. I’d rather put up new statues, or even be creative with street art that often reimagines pedestrian ugliness – like turning bollards into bollart. I’d like to see more memorials of women who aren’t queens, and of previously invisible Indigenous leaders.

One important thing to note is that it is never historians who panic about all this. Most of us relish debate about remembering and restoring and revisiting the past, and the way we record it. It’s excellent. As long as it is informed and does not become warped by a poisonous culture war or nonsensical slurs.

Surely we have grown up sufficiently as a nation to look our own history, long passed, straight in the eye.

 So, is what Baird is saying is that monuments are great, as long as the person honoured agrees entirely with one’s own present point of view? Or maybe it’s as long as the history is being written by white women about a white woman?  

Regardless of what Baird thinks—well, at least what she does this week—monuments are there to teach us important lessons from the past. They represent people who have made a significant contribution to making our society what it is today. No one is perfect, Just take a look at anyone’s Twitter feed. But we need to not only honour the contribution they made while at the same time exercising the tolerance that they didn’t think exactly the same as us. Otherwise, we’re lining up with Marx and his maxim “In bourgeois society… the past dominates the present; in communist society, the present documents the past.”

Mark Powell is Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.

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