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Stan Grant in conversation with Mark Kenny

May 18, 2019

Who could resist a conversation involving Australian journalist, author and academic, Stan Grant? Not many, it seems, which is why this ANU/The Canberra Times conversation event was held in a bigger venue than usual, Llewellyn Hall, and just as well, because the audience was indeed bigger than usual. Such is the drawcard of Stan Grant – whose Talking to my country I reviewed in 2017.

Book coverThis conversation, with Australian journalist and academic Mark Kenny, coincided with the publication of Grant’s new book Australia Day and his essay On identity.

After MC Colin Steele did the usual introductions, Kenny took over, introducing himself and Grant, whom he called an “all-round truth-seeker”. Grant is an articulate, confident, erudite speaker who peppers his arguments with the ideas of many writers and philosophers. There’s no way – my not being a short-hand trained journalist – that I could record all that he said, so I’m going to focus on a few salient points, and let you read the books or research Grant for more!

On Identity

Grant’s analysis of the current “identity” situation made complete sense to Mr Gums and me. He said, essentially, that identity (of whatever sort) is problematic when it becomes exclusive, when it reduces us to those things that define a particular identity and intrudes on our common humanity. At its worst it can trap us into a toxicity which pits us against each other. This sort of identity can make the world “flammable”.

On Justice

This is a tricky one, and I could very well be layering my own values and preferences onto it, but I think Grant aligns himself with people like Desmond Tutu for whom forgiveness, leading to a “higher” peace, was the real goal rather than justice, per se. (It’s all about definitions though isn’t it?) It’s one thing, Grant suggested, to feel righteous indignation, but quite another to desire vengeance. Grant talked about inhaling oxygen into the blood, not the poison of resentment.

On Liberal democracy

The strongest message of the conversation, as I heard it anyhow, concerned Grant’s belief in the fundamental value of liberal democracy as the best system we have for organising ourselves, albeit he recognises that it’s currently under threat (and not just in Australia). In supporting liberal democracy, which came out of the Enlightenment, Grant does not minimise the hurts and losses of indigenous Australians under this system. However, he argues there are solutions within its tenets. I hope I don’t sound simplistic when I say that I found this both reassuring (because I sometimes wonder about our democracy) and encouraging (because it was good to hear some articulate so clearly why he believes liberal democracy has got what we need).

His aim in this latest book of his, Australia Day, was, he said, not to look at indigenous issues in isolation but within a broader context. The conversation spent quite a bit of time teasing out what this actually meant.

Grant made a few clear points:

  • we have a problem when a liberal democratic state refuses to recognise its own history. In Australia we are still living with the legacy of our history, and are facing the challenge of marrying this with Australia’s founding principle, the liberating idea of freedom.
  • the Uluru Statement from the Heart was, fundamentally, indigenous Australians stating that they want to be part of this nation; it conveyed an active choice to be part of a nation that had done them wrong; it represents, and this is my interpretation of what he said, a faith and trust in the nation and its liberal democratic processes. For Grant, the Statement represents the foundational idea of a liberal democracy. Grant then spent some time articulating the flawed arguments used to reject the Voice to Parliament. He argued that the rejection was more than a failure of imagination, courage, and politics. It represented a lack of understanding of the system we are founded upon.
  • the problem in Australia is that there are some extreme minorities who refuse to engage in our liberal democracy.
  • nations are not static – just ask the Balkans, he said! – they come and go. What defines them are not borders but story, a shared story. What is Australia’s story? Part of it is that we are a liberal democracy, but this democracy is being threatened, here and elsewhere, by the increase in the politics of identity which tears at the fabric of nation.
Detail of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam

Detail, Michelangelo, The creation of Adam (Public domain)

A key question he said is whether a liberal democracy can deliver on its promises. Among the many philosophers he referenced was Hegel whose idea of “becoming” Grant likes. He talked about Michelangelo’s painting of The creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel, and the fact that the fingers don’t meet. We all live in this space, he said. It’s a powerful image. He believes that “unfettered liberalism can erode community”, and that liberalism is currently failing to deal with fruits of its own success. It works well in an homogenous state, but most states are not homogenous. Resolving this is modern liberalism’s challenge.

On Australia Day (January 26)

I have heard Grant on this before, but I enjoyed hearing it teased out more in this forum. On January 26, 1788, the idea of the Australian nation was planted, and this idea encompassed the ideas of the Enlightenment (albeit, he admitted when question by Kenny, the colony didn’t look much like it in those early days). This day, he says, holds all that we are and all that we are not. It also means something for all of us, indigenous and non-indigenous. For him, the day is about considering, recognising, exploring who we are.

He argues that changing this date would hand January 26 over to white nationalists, but he applauds that the change-the-date campaign has ensured that no-one can now come to the day without knowing the issue, without knowing the angst it encompasses. Indigenous people have changed how we see this day, and we all share deeply that first injustice.

He then asserted that our right to protest that day is a rare thing – and it’s because we are a liberal democracy. Grant argued that antagonism is the life blood of the nation, that being free “to antagonise” is the fundamental principle of liberal democracy. The challenge is to hold these antagonisms in balance.

Considering how the current impasse could be resolved, he talked about ways that the day could be imbued with new significance: wouldn’t it be good if a treaty were signed on this date, or that Australia became a republic?

Returning to the idea of identity, he believes the problem is that we think first about identity rather than policy, but, he argued, powerful communities will always look after identity. What we need is good policy to fix our socio-economic burdens. And that, on this Australian election day, seems a good place to end!

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
13 May 2019

25 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2019 6:08 pm

    Brava, WG! Brava. Such a well-reported synthesis of the ideas and thinking of Stan GRANT. You have such a clear manner of re-phrasing, para-phrasing – that I heard Stan’s voice coming through loud and clear. And, yes – I agree with the position/s and understanding/s you have taken in writing up this report! (At present in Zagreb, Hrvatska. Voted at the Embassy yesterday)!

    • May 18, 2019 6:12 pm

      You do my confidence a world of good Jim! So, thanks for that. And I’m glad you heard his voice coming through. (Now, I’m off to a hopefully happy election get together!)

      Enjoy Zagreb, you traveller you.

  2. May 18, 2019 6:34 pm

    Well, this is a lot to digest on election day in Australia!
    I’m not up to speed on all the issues….but this post has given me
    at least an indication of things to watch for in the news and books.
    I have “Talking to My Country” on my Kindle…so I should get started asap.
    I’ll have a look at your reveiw frist.
    Watching the election returns here on the other side of the world!

    Next week 25 May we vote for European Elections
    ….and there is a group of 5 nationalists trying to unravel the Union: Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, Dutch politician G. Wilders, M. Le Pen France and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s ruling party. I have no idea what is going to happen! Scary times…

    • May 18, 2019 10:30 pm

      They are indeed N@ncy and you can’t take any comfort from what’s happened here (despite polls which suggested something different.)

      BTW will be mailing your giveaway prize on Monday.

  3. May 18, 2019 6:51 pm

    Grant sounds like the kind of thinker that I very much agree with. I believe that liberal democracy is one of the greatest achievements in human history. I also believe that in many places it is under attack and needs to be defended.

    • May 18, 2019 10:31 pm

      Yes, Brian, I think you would like his perspective on the world. It’s a worry though just how at risk it is. I keep believing that it will hang on, but sometimes worry that I’m being naive.

  4. May 18, 2019 7:45 pm

    VERY interesting, ST ! Yous up there in the nation’s capital (that’s N, I guess) do get some good stuff offered.
    Thanks for the reportage – you done good, kid.

    • May 18, 2019 10:33 pm

      Haha, MR, we do, though I think many of these authors spruce all around the country when their books come out – at least in all the capital cities (like at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne – though I don’t exactly know where Stan Grant has been.)

      And thanks for calling me “kid”. Does my psyche the world of good!

  5. May 18, 2019 8:48 pm

    Just watching the election results and not feeling at all happy. Issues like Indigenous issues are at risk if the result goes the way it’s trending now…

    • May 18, 2019 10:27 pm

      Yep, agree Lisa, just said to Mr Gums that climate, indigenous issues and asylum seeker issues (not that Labor was great on this last) are done for again. Just back from an election get together with another couple, but we’ve come home demoralised.

      • May 18, 2019 10:55 pm

        I know the feeling….
        2016 I went to bed thinking Hillary Clinton would be
        the next US president…and the next morning
        I was so shocked with a Trump victory.
        I thought I heard the news incorrectly…then reality sunk in.
        Following your election, issues (b/c I’ve been reading Aus Lit regularly)
        …and am impressed by one name Penny Chong!
        …2022 next PM?

        • May 18, 2019 11:28 pm

          Oh yes, we remember that too, Nancy.

          I think you mean Penny Wong, and yes she’s very impressive. We were wondering tonight if she’ll stick around after this. I really hope she does.

      • Neil@kallaroo permalink
        May 19, 2019 12:32 am

        And my football team lost as well. A bad evening. 😦

      • May 19, 2019 7:49 am

        I find it hard to process the fact that most Australians don’t care about that and have voted otherwise. It makes me want to retreat to a cave, but I guess that’s democracy. You have to expect that for some of your lifetime your preferred party won’t be in power.
        I think Laura Tingle’s position at the ABC is untenable now. She looked shell-shocked on TV and, after she came out so strongly before the election and in such a partisan way, her position as chief political correspondent just doesn’t seem viable.

        • May 19, 2019 8:59 am

          She did look completely drawn. They all looked subdued. I feel devastated … like most of us. But democracy as you say -and as Stan Gant said. What makes me sad is that Labor ran a generally positive, visionary campaign and people clearly instead listened to the scare tactics many of which were blatantly untrue. Oh well, I guess it’s not all bad – the more money ScoMo saves me the more I’ll point in directions of MY choice.

        • May 19, 2019 4:14 pm

          Oh, I thought Leigh Sales was really enjoying herself.

        • May 19, 2019 5:41 pm

          Do you mean that, Lisa? She looked subdued to me, or, at least, serious. Maybe it was just serious.

        • May 19, 2019 7:10 pm

          I do mean that!

        • May 19, 2019 7:26 pm

          Fascinating how differently we can see things!

  6. May 19, 2019 11:24 am

    Skipped the last comments – not willing yet to face up to election results I saw foreshadowed when I came out of movies last night. Our ‘liberal democracy’ is only a shadow of what it might be, what it is in NZ and northern Europe because the right, led by the Murdoch ‘press’ , pretend to be democrats while actually aiming at undermining the rule of law in favour of unfettered capitalism. (Thank you for “to Mr Gums and me”, I could murder some people for “and I”).

    • May 19, 2019 2:35 pm

      Hahaha Bill … I usually get my “I” and “Me” right, and even my “Myself” as well! That’s a new addition to the whole pronoun confusion. Myself and Sarah went to the party last night, etc. I mean really? I want to yell, “Take out the ‘and Sarah’ and say it again. Would you really say ‘Myself went to the party’? No, you wouldn’t!! So cut the “myself” would you! Please!”

      As for the election. Devastating. What a mean country we’ve become…

  7. ian darling permalink
    May 23, 2019 8:58 pm

    Commiserations on your election result. Today we have the elections for the European Parliament that will almost certainly result in victory for Farage’s Brexit party and, for me, the victory of a potentially quite toxic English nationalism. For the first time I find myself sympathetic to some aspects of Scottish nationalism…..but with huge misgivings and suspicions of that variety of identity politics!

    • May 23, 2019 9:24 pm

      Thanks Ian … I must say many of us are feeling very despondent and frustrated – and angry really. BUT as they say it’s a democracy! (BUT people were led astray by some scurrilous campaigning … stop, I must stop!)

      It’s a pretty disappointing world at the moment – for many of us anyhow – isn’t it.

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