Esther’s Space- journey through my life

July 18, 2008

Review: The Australians: Insiders and Outsiders on the National Character from 1770

Filed under: Australia — Tags: , , — estherspace @ 10:52 am

Citation: Hirst, John. The Australians: Insiders and Outsiders on the National Character from 1770. Melbourne, Australia: Black Inc., 2007.

John Hirst’s The Australians: Insiders and Outsiders on the National Character from 1770 is a book I’ve been interested in reading for a while. Well, not that long, since it just came out in 2007. I first became aware of it when I read an article by Mark Colvin on ABC news. In the article, Hirst was quoted as saying, “we used to be a British nation and we’re no longer that. We’ve become aware that the Aborigines were here first, and our success as a nation rests on the fact that we took their land.” Yes, I agree. Having that awareness is key for how Australia is shaping itself for the future. So I bought the book.

And it was not what it promised to be, or what I thought it would be. I thought that Hirst was going to force Australians to think about how “our success as a nation rests on the fact that we took [Aboriginal] lands” and how “we’re no longer [a British nation].” I’m not sure Hirst is doing that in his book.

Hirst’s foreword gives a strong indication of where the work will be heading, “I am confident these voices will both confirm much of what we believe to be true about us and also challenge many of our ideas about how we became who we are.” Confirmation of ‘widely-held Australian values’ certainly does take place. With chapters dedicated to the ideas of mateship and fair go, and to Australian characters such as the larrakin and ‘new’ Australians, much of Hirst’s book is engaged in doing exactly what Graham Huggan warns critics against, being, “hindered by its reliance on national(ist) tropes and mythologized binary oppositions, which often work to displace deeper or more widely dispersed sources of antagonisim…” (ix-x).

Hirst’s book relies completely on these nationalist tropes. It is inherent in the structure of the book, with each chapter focussed on presenting and re-affirming the place of each trope of Australianness. As a whole, it serves as a great anthology to answer the question Hirst presents, “who are the Australians?” as long as the satisfactory answer is the same answer that sufficed a generation ago.

Martin Crotty has described Hirst’s book as “thought-provoking, easy to read, and highly instructive.” I both agree and disagree. For the basic reader, it is all of these. But this simplicity is deceptive, for it is allowing readers (and critics) to mask the grave pedagogy of Hirst’s approach to Australian history. While he has collected the opinions of “insiders and outsiders,” I am led to wonder about why he collected what he did, and what did he leave out? It is Hirst alone who has had the responsibility for determining who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ when it comes to the Australian community. This is no small matter, since this is likely to become a staple in the frightfully sparse anthologies of Australian literature. This book, like many Australians, is willing to find fault with the nation at only a very shallow, easily glossed, level. This book provokes thought, primarily thought based around how Australia really is the wonderful community of strong, independent, stoic (male) spirits that the Australians have always thought to to have been.

Question that I’m leaving this book with:  Why is Hirst considered the author of this book instead of its editor? He wrote the short introductions, but really this is an individual-collected anthology.

And that’s what I have to say about that.


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