Stan Grant supports Sean Gordon
This is an edited speech, delivered by Stan Grant on 20 September 2017, in support of Sean Gordon’s essay, “Claiming the Common Ground for Recognition.” Gordon’s essay is available for download here.
I want to talk to you about poetry. I want to talk to you about story, because at the heart of Sean’s essay is the need to find a new story of us. That’s the task we are set. That’s our challenge. Beyond the act of giving voice to Indigenous recognition, this is about the story of the nation, a story that we leave for our children.
There was an idea that recognition would amount to some flowery words about our antiquity and our place in this country. This rightly has been rejected by Indigenous people as mere symbolism. Sean says, “Poetry alone cannot empower First Peoples.” “But poetry is important,” he says, “to our national life.” I disagree with Sean there, because poetry is indeed power.
Look to the poetry of the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” Leaving aside the Texas language of the time, that aspiration, that fundamental ideal lit a path through the darkest days of America, and it continues to light a path today. The very idea of nation is bound in story, in poetry.
Ernest Renan, the French historian, pondered this thing of nation in an essay in the nineteenth century. He wrote, “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. [...] It’s a great task to build a nation that does not cling to memory, to grievance, or division” – precisely what Sean has written about, “Forgetting.” I would even say historical era is an essential factor in the creation of a nation, forgetting as much as remembering. In Australia, we’re presented with a deep chasm that arises out of our history. Recognition, constitutional reform, walks a national fault line – history and race. Recognition itself challenges us to make good on the past, to live free of its chains, to remember in order to forget.
Renan told us, a nation demands it of us. “Man is a slave neither of his race, his language, his religion, the course of his rivers, nor the direction of his mountain ranges. A great aggregation of men, in sane mind and warm heart, created a moral conscience that calls itself a nation.” A moral conscience that calls itself a nation. What more profound test of this nation’s conscience has there been than the legacy and the enduring legacy of the suffering of the First Peoples. This suffering is rooted in invasion and theft of land. I know that those words would sound harsh to some ears that would prefer the softer settlement and dispossession, but those are the words that are spoken in Indigenous communities. And yet, that suffering is set against the great progress and success of this country. And I can tell you, as someone who has seen the worst of the world in a 30-year reporting career, who has seen disaster and war, that Australia as a country is the envy of much of the world.
As someone who believes in the foundations of liberal democracy, in the ability of individuals to achieve their full potential, how did those great traditions extend the promise to those who have suffered the most for this country’s prosperity? The answer, partly I think, lies in the words of one of the founders of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, pondering the idea of nation himself. He spoke of the need to soften the extreme form and fill up the intervals between us. The Canadian philosopher James Tully has spoken of what he calls a strange multiplicity. “We find ourselves,” he says, “locked in seemingly intractable conflicts across race and gender and class.” “The question,” he said, “is whether a Constitution can give recognition to the legitimate demands of the members of diverse cultures that renders everyone their due.”
A great tradition of Indigenous leadership has sought to fill up the intervals between us and sought to satisfy our strange multiplicity. This is the quest for the middle ground. It is the essence of moderation but not a weak moderation. As Albert Camus said, “Our world does not need tepid souls, it needs burning hearts, who know the proper place of moderation.”
We live in moderate times today. Moderation is not sexy. As Michel de Montaigne wrote, “It is much easier to make one’s way along the margins, the extremes, than to take the wide and unhedged middle way.” Raymond Aron, another French thinker, said, “Lucidity demands effort, passion automatically goes at a gallop.” There are too many who would prefer to go at a gallop. Aron said, “We need to think politically, not ideologically.”
Sean has outlined an approach that looks beyond ideology and vanity. It doesn’t diminish the righteousness of the Indigenous struggle or absolve Australia of its past, but it does seek to find new answers to old problems. It’s what political scientists have called trimming, adjusting their cargo and trimming the sails to maintain an even keel. But politics without poetry cannot build a nation. Story is essential.
Salman Rushdie says, “Those that do not have the power over their story cannot think new thoughts.” So, what is our story? What is the story that speaks to us all in Australia? We do not have the great Declaration of the United States. Sean speaks of the need for a declaration of our own. Some have called this a declaration of recognition. I think it needs to be more than that. I write in the book, “A Rightful Place,” that I prefer a declaration of country, something that speaks to who we are on this land, something that speaks to my ancestors, black and white, who are buried in this soil.
Our great writers have grappled with this sense of place. I recall Joan Lindsay’s novel and later the Peter Weir film, “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” Here, young white girls are lost to this land. What is this if not in essence a white Dreaming Story? They are lost to this land, and those who are left are changed, but they are part of this place.
Sean begins his essay with an evocation of place, of his attachment to his ancestral country in Brewarrina, and how others who have come here from other parts of the world have found their own sense of being and belonging. Without a sense of place, without a sense of story, how can we truly find this thing, this thing of the soul that is a nation? It begins, I think, with an appreciation of our place here on this land. For as Carl Jung said, “Land assimilates the conqueror.”