nationalism

Heroes, Identity and the Realm of History

By guest contributor Meg Foster

Heroes are big business in popular culture. From ancient Greek and Roman legends, through to the popular Marvel comic figures of our own time, we have spent centuries on the lookout for exceptional men and women to emulate, inspire and move us beyond the familiar rhythm of our daily lives. As folklorist Graham Seal notes, heroes embody the hopes, aspirations, values and longings of their followers. They are important not so much for their existence, as their supporters. One person is negligible compared to the legion who mimic them and incorporate their views of the world into their own. Hero worship affects how people think, feel and relate to one another, but it is not just about personally held values. It also affects how people act. Our heroes affect our sense of belonging, who we feel connected and responsible to, who we are apathetic towards and who we feel the need to protect. In this way legendary figures have influenced and continue to shape the course of history. But because of their associations with mass popular culture, low brow entertainment and parochial myth making, they are frequently regarded as beyond the realm of historical inquiry.

In Australia, the heroic figures that feature heavily in the national imaginary are ‘bushrangers’. Not to be confused with park rangers or game keepers, bushrangers were nineteenth century criminals who were on the run from the law. Bushrangers were Australians’ unique brand of highwaymen; thieves who committed ‘robbery under arms’ and roamed throughout the Australian bush. Even today, white, male bushrangers are lauded as national icons, associated as they are with bravery, chivalry and ridiculing inept or corrupt authorities. Ned Kelly is the most famous of this band of celebrated white men, and despite the affiliation with crime, Kelly is a veritable national icon. To give just one example, at the opening of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, hundreds of figures clad in his famous armour ran onto the stage and introduced Australia to the world. In rural Australia in particular, there is a roaring bushranger tourist trade, and locals still commemorate significant events in the lives of their fallen heroes.

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Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia, 1852 (1887, oil on canvas, 29.7 x 61. cm) by William Strutt (1825–1915).

Much work still needs to be done untangling where the history of these characters has become entwined with exaggeration, fabrication and myth. But even more pressing is an exploration of the ‘other bushrangers’; bushrangers who were not white men, and never became a part of the national mythos. The fact that these figures even existed is met with surprise by most Australians (even academics) who hear about my PhD research. For bushranging to be so much a part of national identity, so pervasive in popular culture, and then to have these ‘other’ characters concealed from view shocks the sensibilities of many. There were African American, Chinese and Aboriginal bushrangers, as well as white and Aboriginal women who took up this nefarious trade; and these are only the people I have uncovered so far. When I speak about my research, people’s incredulity is usually quickly matched by enthusiasm. “Isn’t that great!” they exclaim. “A black bushranger, and women too, who would have thought?!” There is a strong push to include these ‘hidden’ figures in the national mythos, to place them as heroes alongside the likes of Ned Kelly and remark that the nation has always had a multicultural past. And while proffered in good faith, this approach is extremely problematic. ‘Other’ bushrangers were deliberately excluded from the burgeoning bushranging legend. Their uncritical, posthumous inclusion in this narrative does not reflect the reality that they lived in. And it overlooks what their experiences can tell us about colonial society.

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‘Bushrangers Stuck Up’ Australian Illustrated News, 1870.

Colonial understandings about race and gender already positioned ‘other’ bushrangers on the lower rungs of the social and evolutionary ladder. That they then engaged in crime only reinforced their inferior position compared to white men. And yet, these bushrangers also disrupted colonial narratives of inferiority as they operated outside of the law and undermined white power. Aboriginal bushranger Jimmy Governor was so feared that whole towns were left deserted in anticipation of his arrival, and he survived on the run for almost three months. This was despite thousands of police and civilians joining the chase, resulting in what Laurie Moore and Stephen Williams have described as the “largest manhunt in Australian history” (iv). However, no bushranger was ever the same. While there are signs of agency and personality in the records of some ‘other bushrangers’, I am more often confronted with their absence. Other bushrangers were deliberately marginalized in their own times, and remain so today because they challenged colonial Australians’ ideas about race, sex, and gender, as well as how they saw their place in the world. But this makes the process of recovery even more important.

‘Other’ bushrangers disrupt pre-existing narratives. They complicate the idea that colonial power was ever absolute, natural or just. And their lives provide a unique lens through which to view national and transnational history. Although white, male bushrangers were (and remain) national heroes, there are other traditions that influenced the bushranging phenomenon. Sam Poo, the Chinese bushranger, was more likely to be influenced by Chinese legends of outlawry (that circulated from the twelfth century) than any emergent Anglo tradition. Mary Ann Ward may have seen her actions in light of Aboriginal strategies of resistance and freedom fighting, rather than solely in relation to her white bushranging spouse.

Heroes are important. They embody the hopes, aspirations, values and longings of their followers. They represent who we are and who we want to be. People who are excluded from this heroic status are excluded for a reason. And exploring their stories shines a unique, if not always complimentary, light on both national history, and Australia’s place in the world. Heroes are important. And challenging, analyzing and expanding upon popular mythology should be within the realm of history.

Meg Foster is a PhD candidate in History at the University of New South Wales. Under the supervision of Grace Karskens and Lisa Ford, Meg is investigating the ‘other’ bushrangers (Australian outlaws who were not white men) in history and memory. After completing her honours thesis on Indigenous Bushrangers in 2013, Meg worked as a researcher with the Australian Centre of Public History at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, and was the inaugural winner of the Deen De Bortoli Award in Applied History for her article, ‘Online and Plugged In?: Public history and historians in the digital age’ featured in the Public History Review (2014). As well as her PhD, Meg works as an historical consultant and has a particular interest in making connections between history and the contemporary world.

 

Towards an Intellectual History of the Alt-Right?

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz
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Richard Spencer, a popular alt-right leader, leads the crowd in performing a Nazi salute at his National Policy Institute’s convention this past November (picture (c) Occupy Democrats)

As the alt-right has gained ascendance in American politics and cultural consciousness over the past 24 months, American intellectuals have been scrambling to try and understand its roots and what makes it tick. The media has even been at odds about how to refer to the movement. Most treatments of the alt-right in the news media have been more descriptive than interpretive, but a few very interesting articles have sought to explain the intellectual history and ideology of the movement.

In particular, two articles that I’ve come across stand out. The first is is piece that was published at the end of November in the Jewish online Tablet Magazine written by Jacob Siegel, a reporter for the Daily Beast. Siegel uses Paul Gottfried, a conservative intellectual and historian, as a window into alt-right ideology. A child of German-Jewish refugees, Gottfried is an ardent opponent of Nazism but argues, in much of his scholarship, that other, truer forms of fascism were actually quite successful and morally justified. “If someone were to ask me what distinguishes the right from the left,” Siegel quotes one of Gottfried’s books, “the difference that comes to mind most readily centers on equality. The left favors that principle, while the right regards it as an unhealthy obsession.” To Gottfried, since what he considers the economic failure of socialism the Western left has taken on equality as its raison d’etre. This orientation stymies actual progress and individual liberties, allowing what he calls the “therapeutic managerial state” to accumulate power unchecked by healthy nationalism. Siegel thus interprets Gottfried as a “Nietzschean American Nationalist.”
Gottfried is an erstwhile mentor of Richard Spencer, the most visible leader of the alt-right movement and head of its National Policy Institute. Gottfried has since parted ways with Spencer over the latter’s white nationalism. However, as Siegel discusses in this and another article, what figures like Gottfried reveal about the alt-right is that it is unique from many older nationalist and racialist movements in its embrace of grand historical theories, academic jargon and a keen interest in history and metahistory. It is also at once highly populist, with many of its leaders urging a white populist revolution, as well as, like he fascist movements figures like Gottfried and Spencer identify as their forbears, highly elitist and skeptical of democracy.
The white nationalist component of the alt-right is the subject of a longer article by historian Timothy Shenk that appeared last August in The Guardian. Interestingly, the Guardian has taken much more of a keen interest in the American alt-right and began reporting on the movement earlier than many American newspapers. Perhaps the threat of ethnic nationalism looms larger in Europe than in the United States. Shenk orients his article around Samuel Francis (d. 1995), a dissident conservative intellectual and journalist ousted from the conservative establishment for his racialist views. Like Gottfried, Francis, according to Shenk,  sees contemporary society as dominated by a managerial class that threatens the values of most Americans such as morality, nationalism and racial integrity. In his magnum opus, Leviathan and Its Enemies, posthumously-published by a team of editors that includes Gottfried, Francis argues that the Leviathan of the managerial state can be successfully bought down by a white national revolution.  If Gottfried advocates for a new right based in fascism and nationalism, Francis and his protege Jared Taylor, the founder of the online journal American Renaissanceare much more explicitly white supremacist. Much of the Alt-Right today in both Siegel and Shenk’s accounts see themselves at once as a Nietzschean, social-Darwinist vanguard as well as defenders of racial integrity in the United States.
What emerges from both of these articles is an understanding of the alt right that would suggest that its particular brand of right-wing thought is as much a product of intellectual trends developed in the name of left causes — Gramscian Marxism, Frankfurt school critiques of mass society, studies of therapeutic culture —  as much as it is of conservatism. Perhaps it should be unsurprising that the alt-right can tout a radical moral relativism to justify exclusionary nationalism; the origins of relativism in early twentieth century German thought were never far from various iterations of social Darwinism. What also emerges from these articles is an understanding of the alt right that places it, and American conservatism, firmly within American intellectual history.
This framing should make historians reevaluate a lot of the historiography on the right and conservatism written over the past decade. Historians who are part of the current wave of scholarship on the right generally focus on the rise of the Reagan Republicans in the mid-to-late twentieth century. They thus approach the movement as a social phenomena, rooted in popular racist backlash over civil rights on the one hand and corporate-backed efforts to restore pre-New Deal economic policies by popularizing free market economics. Most of these works frame themselves as a corrective to Richard Hofstadter’sconsensus” approach to American history. In his 1948 The American Political Tradition, Hofstadter argued that rather than class conflict agreement on central ideas such as individualism, free market and liberal democracy is what most characterized American politics and under-girded American success. Today’s historians of conservatism seek to disrupt the consensus narrative by exposing the prevalence of racism in American history and understanding conservative ideology as a force in American culture. However, they often  ultimately echo Hofstadter in seeing Americans who joined the republican coalition int the late 1960s-70s as dupes mislead by party elites keen on achieving economic gains.
What follows from the ascendancy of alt right is what many conservatives have been saying all along, namely that whether their critics on the left like their ideologies they indeed have very pronounced ideologies that lead them to take the political positions they do. These ideologies  do not exist in a vacuum either. They dialogue with critical theory and they exhibit nuanced continuities with once very popular ideas of social Darwinism and American nationalism.  In other words, our histories of conservatism may still be tilted  far too much towards Hofstadter consensus narrative: Rather than seeing conservatism in material terms as an aberration based on backlash to Civil Rights without an intellectual history, we ought to be much more explicit with regard to the roots of some conservative ideologies in very prominent , if troubling–and less easily brushed off as reactionary or ignorant– American intellectual traditions. These are intellectual traditions that we perhaps would like to believe long-extinct but the sympathy the alt-right has garnered from many corners suggests that they still occupy a trenchant place in the American national consciousness.  To grapple with and understand the alt-right and its ideas, we, as historians and as citizens, have to take a long hard look at their ideas and their context in our shared history.