Friday, August 25, 2017

Violence in Virginia reflects worldwide national identity debates


Violence in Charlottesville in U.S. Virginia this week between neo-Nazis and anti-racism groups is a symptom of resentment over social change, how history is remembered and the heroes communities decide to celebrate or reject.

In Virginia the clashes were sparked by heated debate about the future of a statue of Confederate General, Robert E Lee. "It was erected at a time when there was this rising myth of the glory of the south, the white nationalist south," says local councillor Kristin Szakos who has sought to move the statue from the public square, prompting outrage from the far-right. "Lee was a symbol of all that was good in pre-war southern society - meaning slavery, white people had dominance and economic power," Szakos told the ABC.

Hours after the Charlottesville violence, anti-racist protesters in North Carolina toppled a Confederate statue there - pulling it to the ground and stomping on it.

White nationalist organisers see themselves as defenders of old and sacred monuments and therefore their history. Even as an anti-racism campaigner I seek to understand what motivates these groups. They feel threatened, as if the memorials' very existence scaffolds their future. Fresh rallies are planned to protect other Confederate statues slated by local authorities for tearing down.

Civil rights activist Reverend Jessie Jackson says the Confederate monuments are "unfinished business" in his country. "These guys sought to secede from our union, maintain slavery and secession.. and so these statues are coming down and they should come down.. When you lose the war you vanquish your symbols. Their symbols should exist in a museum someplace."

He offers a conciliatory tone: the statues should not be erased.

In other parts of the world there are similar battles over cultural heritage. In South Africa (with much less international media interest) statues of heroes of the so-called 'Struggle' are being dotted across the South African landscape. New memorials eulogising Nelson Mandela and his comrades clearly value recent political history and emancipation. Meanwhile, statues of white people - Nationalist Party heroes - are being torn down or moved into less public places. A minority-community increasingly feels pushed out of the national narrative.

At the same the ruling African National Congress has insisted on renaming streets and buildings across South Africa's cities. The decade-long campaign has driven another wedge between minority white Afrikaners and black South Africans. Anger ripples under the surface. The party of revered Mandela is consistently accused of not governing for all, not just because of its lack of action addressing inequality and poverty but by what it actively chooses to remember and chooses to forget.

History, thick with all sorts of human exchange and perspectives, is actually never really finished business. It, like memory, is elastic. Successive generations view the past in new ways as alternative histories and stories come to prominence, while other stories fade from view.

Here in Australia it's just a matter of time before Australia's own colonial statues celebrating the role of British explorers and settlers are defaced or councils are asked to move them on.

Meanwhile, we are feuding over Australia Day. Yarra Council in Melbourne consulted widely before deciding this week to cancel its annual citizenship ceremony on that day. Instead the Council will hold what it calls a small "culturally-sensitive" event featuring a smoking ceremony on January 26.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's response was odd. He accused the council of repudiating Australian values and dividing the community, without acknowledging the fact that many Australians have long thought Australia Day, a date set by the 1788 invasion, is highly divisive. With or without Turnbull's blessing, the #changethedate campaign is growing momentum.

National days, memorials and monuments act as signage about what a society or culture values. Values ebb and flow. That's why there is often intense lobbying and debate about what's erected along Anzac Parade in Canberra and why there's often a curious amount of critique about the suitability or otherwise of some public artwork in the parliamentary triangle or city precinct.

Battles over cultural symbols are more emotional the older a city, the more layered or traumatic its past. Overtly multicultural nations, especially those grappling with slave and colonial histories, are in a knot about how to ensure both cultural renewal and conservation. The ACT's commendable decision this week to have a territory-wide Reconciliation Day holiday is the start of a new tradition as a bridge between the past and present.

Conservative Senator Cory Bernardi's reaction to Pauline Hanson's burqa stunt is a reminder of the fault lines we live with. Bernardi was troubled by the stunt's impact on the reputation of the Federal parliament but at the same time endorsed the exercise as an expression of a wish to preserve "our culture" (as if he is a self-appointed arbiter of culture).

Cultures are not static, more so in our hyper-connected world. The disrupting forces of globalisation bring us closer together and yet also antagonise communities, exaggerating rifts between globe-trotting elites and others more attached to local place and who feel less control - such as the rusted-on members of President's Trump constituency.

National identities are being questioned and asserted. In post-apartheid South Africa, it's all about what does it mean to be 'African' today. In Australia, Turnbull keeps stressing Australian values without really articulating what they are or creating spaces to persuade those who feel outside the tent. The challenge is to publicly debate who we are and seek to be without dismissing contrary views and experiences. Attorney General George Brandis' speech repudiating Hanson is a hopeful sign. But many more in his party-political team need to step up to the challenge; search for, explain and articulate the values that can unite us.

First published in The Canberra Times, 19 August 2017