LEST WE FORGET (TO PAY OUR RESPECTS AND CRITICALLY REFLECT)
Preamble by Richard Hil
If you haven’t heard this address by celebrated Australian author, Richard Flanagan, to the National Press Club in Canberra, please consider doing so.
By any measure, it’s an address steeped in big ideas, many of them perhaps unpalatable to the sensibilities of some Australians. Whatever you might think of Flanagan’s observations about the nation we inhabit, they invite something we all need to possess if we’re to avoid drowning in myth and dogma – critical reflection.
What this well-worn term refers to is a capacity to hold a mirror to ourselves, to consider what and how we think, and to unravel and reassemble the assumptions that percolate into our minds. It’s never an easy process.
As Flanagan spoke, the camera panned over the faces of the gathered throng of journalists, many, perhaps most of them, hardened by the realities of today’s self-serving political culture. They looked pensive, expectant. Who could blame them? After all, it was to them, the purveyors of ‘news’ and countless others that he was speaking some awkward truths. But Flanagan was not out to simply shake things up or make people more nervous than they already were; his was call for a change to the way Australians think about themselves and their nation. Yes, he disrupted popular narratives – the cracked records that underpin our ‘national identity’. It’s as if we are, Flanagan suggested, stuck in the habit of celebrating unity yet experiencing increasing division, rivalry and narcissistic self-interest.
Flannagan’s words cut deep, positing an unwanted image of ourselves, of something unresolved, of a harm done, of a way of life that disregards certain populations. This discomfort, often buried deep within us and overlaid with the veneer of self-gratification, occasionally surfaces when faced with awkward truths. In the case of Australia one truth is that our country was brutally colonised, and another that most Australians are the beneficiaries of invasion and occupation. But there is a third truth highlighted by Flannigan, and it’s to do with the Indigenisation of Australia and the complex ways in which Indigenous culture has woven itself, knowingly and otherwise, and sometimes against our will, into our hearts, souls and everyday life. Knowing or feeling this heightens our sense of unease. Thus, we celebrate ANZAC Day yet are intuitively discomforted by it. The more we know of the wars fought by Indigenous people on these lands for their freedom, the more we are invited to reconsider our relationship with the past and present. Lest we forget, there are few if any memorials to commemorate the loss of Indigenous lives in defence of their country.
Flanagan observes that if Australia, as a truly unified, confident nation is to evolve, or ‘mature’; if we are to shed many of our self-serving myths and misconceptions, and if we are to disengage from the murderous folly of empire wars, and to finally respect Indigenous people by recognising the truths of the past and the realities of the present, then that could be a starting point. We can no longer remain stuck in this illusory moment.