IV Reasons “Antipodes”, My New History Book, Shouldn’t Exist

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

Like any virgin author, I’m excited to see my first history book ANTIPODES: IN SEARCH OF THE SOUTHERN CONTINENT in stores. It has been a long and at times difficult road to publication. The truth is, it very nearly wasn’t so. Here’s how the book, mimicking the southern continent about which it muses, sputtered into and out of existence.

1: It started with an inland sea

The book is about the European idea of—then relentless search for—a massive continent in the southern hemisphere, particularly from the 16th through 18th centuries. So, first things first: I never intended to write a single word about Terra Australis, which is what this imagined land came to be known as.

When I began research for a PhD at the University of Queensland, my topic was the 19th century idea of an inland sea in the Australian interior. Great topic (was then, still is now, and I encourage any budding PhD students to tackle it). But, before I did any research on the non-existent Australian inland sea, I brushed up on the broader and longer history of what Europeans imagined for the entire southern hemisphere.

A year later I was still brushing up… and realised that there were so many interesting avenues of inquiry, so many things still to be said and so many maps to ponder that I was now in the Antipodes business (apologies to my PhD supervisor who must have thought I was utterly insane).

2: I did not know anything about anything

How does one become an expert? Decide you need to become an expert then read everything you can get your hands on, think about the subject constantly and have the audacity to both put your own ideas out there and be willing to tell others they are wrong (preferably when they are).

It was a truly daunting prospect having to learn all that had to be learned—completely from scratch. My subject covers two thousand years of history, from antiquity to the modern era. It involves all manner of sources from many different places (try communicating as a non-Italian speaker with Italian libraries for a fun experience), and covers multiple fields of scholarly inquiry.

Had I appreciated the true size of the subject and how unreasonable it was for a young scholar to try to understand it all, I would never have started. I had no idea I would need to translate ancient Greek philosophy! Or understand symbols on Medieval maps! Or grapple with the mental state of Christian explorers!

What may have looked like arrogance on my part, tackling such a broad swathe of history, was in fact pure naivety. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, much like many of the explorers who set out in search of knowledge in the Age of Discovery and after. Luckily, I didn’t end up as a pile of sun-bleached bones in a desert, though at times it felt like I was as lost as Leichhardt.

That is why it took me 5 years to finish my research and complete my thesis—that, and the presence of a bean bag in my office.

3: Based on a PhD that was based on the book that didn’t exist

When I was a graduate student I was not shy in my disdain for the manner in which many research theses are executed at universities. My opinion on the matter has only firmed now that I work professionally as an academic editor.

That is, theses are often obscure and preposterously narrow in their focus (I used to joke to new people I met that I was researching the history of beer bottle caps, or the history of chip-board in Australia; no one ever quibbled).

They often focus on intrinsically uninteresting and unimportant content (but then everyone thinks what they are doing is important, yours truly included).

And, worst of all misdemeanours, they are often written as if the scholar is functionally illiterate and has relied on a random word generator—or hates readers and wishes them to suffer as much as they did writing the monstrosity.

So, I said to hell with literature reviews and other such wastes of everybody’s time, to hell with fusty academic phrasing and credential establishing, I’m writing a damned book and that is going to be my PhD. So I did, with informal language (sacrilege), a less than reverent tone (scoundrel), no literature review (fool) and so on (again, apologies to my supervisor; there was more than the odd raised brow and cautionary word over my caper).

It was all a bit iffy as to whether my examiners would throw me out of the academy or welcome me with open arms. In the end, I was lambasted for my attitude, and applauded for my content. The book is now considerably different to that PhD thesis, but the same heart beats in both.

4: My first publisher dropped me

In academic publishing, promising work is sent out to academic reviewers for their opinion and to give a yay or nay for publication. Some academics do this reviewing in a straightforward and fairly objective manner. Others are rooting for the writer; they know how hard it all is and choose to see the positive.

And then others—far too many others—seek to flay the writer no matter what, in the act that I heard Australian historian Tom Griffiths aptly describe as boundary riding. They seek to protect what is theirs, and with some academics what is theirs is all of academia—so get out of my territory!

To be blunt, they can be complete and utter miserable bastards. The whole process is notoriously bruising and disliked by just about everyone who has ever written a manuscript that must be signed off on by academics.

So, I was very pleased when after more than six months of messing around a respected English publisher received their reader reports and told me they wanted to publish. Many months more down the path, they unceremoniously dropped me—over email.

Their Australian agent had finally told them my book would not sell enough copies in Australia (we shall see). Unfortunately, these processes don’t take months, but years, and so I was set back so badly I very nearly decided not to bother trying to find another publisher.

I could not let it go, and finally I did find a good home at Monash (thanks to Nathan Hollier at the Press for not messing around in the least when it came to expressing interest and deciding to take it to print). But the book took 5 years to write, and then 6 years to publish. 11 years!

No, the book should definitely not exist.

But I’m glad it does. It is not boring and it is not pointless and it is not written to frustrate readers. In that sense, it should exist. Many said the same about Terra Australis, and they made that exist, too.

To see how, you’ll need to read the book. It won’t take 11 years. Unless you are my wife. She still hasn’t read it, but I am assured it is the very next history book she will read.

Trump Supporters and the Modular Mind

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

Now that it’s done—Trump is President—the question becomes, how did it happen? How did all those people see his misogyny, sexual lechery, crassness, and willingness to lie and still decide he was the one to lead America into the future? The answer is the modular brain.

Pundits like Bill Maher would have us believe that Trump supporters are simply vile and stupid people, filled with hate and xenophobia. That does not go far to explaining it, though. So often, when a Trump supporter was engaged—quietly, not in a screaming match—they proved to be sympathetic, even appealing, humans. They were striving to understand a confounding world, they listened to those who had another viewpoint, they seemed to just want good things for people. Many had very difficult lives from which they simply sought the hope of better prospects for self or the next generation.

And, many acknowledged Trump’s enormous character flaws. They recognised the sexism and his bestial approach to women, his erratic behaviour, his love of name calling and fudging facts. For liberals, all that was simply grist for their established position: it gave them perfect reasons not to vote for him (which they weren’t going to do anyway). But they also thought they should be reasons for others not to vote for him.

And yet none of it mattered because, as Professor Robert Kurzban explains in Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind, different parts of the brain take over for different tasks. So, when potential supporters assessed Trump as a personality—assessing him the way we assess every person we meet in a social setting—the social part of their brain completely understood that he was a dubious character. There are so many interviews and clips with supporters where we see this.

But when it came to making a political decision, a decision seemingly about much bigger things than personality—we’re talking things like the economy and immigration and international relations—different modules of their brain kicked in.

These are the modules that were concerned in our evolutionary history with basic survival. Getting an advantage over competitors. Securing enough food. Securing a stable community that protected you and which you protected. In evolutionary times, did it matter that the most powerful members of your tribe were crass cave-men who grabbed their crotch and the crotch of their fellow cave-women? No, there was no time to worry about such niceties when survival was paramount. And that, in the eyes of many Americans, is what was on the line: survival.

When survival and prosperity is at stake, what mattered way back then in evolutionary times, and what matters now whether people wish to believe it or not, is power and projected power. Leaders in evolutionary times had to fight and kill or, at the least, dominate. That is the module—or set of modules—of the brain that were engaged to make the political decision to vote for Trump. Not the module about niceness, personality, or abstract values. It was the modules about threats and survival, and it didn’t matter whether those threats were illusory or real.

For people in America lacking prosperity, whose communities had suffered from job and infrastructure losses while they saw foreigners continue to enter their country and chase the dream that had seemed to escape them, Trump was power and he was promise.

America ended up with President Trump because the decision-making modules in millions of brains simply didn’t care that Trump is a repulsive character. He promised them things that they wanted—bring back the coal industry, make America great again, secure borders, kill unfair trade agreements, all vague things without a plan behind them—and he seemed like the sort of powerful man who could make it come true.

Hillary Clinton? She just promised decency, or at least that is what Trump supporters heard. Decency in a time of national upheaval and during a fight for survival—who cares, thought the brains of the Trump supporters?

And that is why there was so much said about Clinton’s emails. People who held decent values in one module of their brain but wanted to vote for Trump according to a different module experienced dissonance. Their brain sought to resolve that disagreement, and did so with confabulation. ‘Oh, I mustn’t like or be voting for Hillary Clinton because of the emails.’

The brain of the evolutionary beast won out, and so now Chief Cave Man Trump is President.

Is ‘Discovery’ Really an Evil Word?

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

It seems like the debate over the word ‘discovery’ has been going on forever now. It looks something like this: when talking about the exploits of European explorers, you should not use the word ‘discovery’ because all the places they ‘discovered’ were already known by the indigenous people who lived there for hundreds or thousands of years.

Well, sure, absolutely! But that’s not the way in which any half-sensible historian or writer uses the word. In fact, I drop the ‘d’ word over 500 times in my new book, ANTIPODES: IN SEARCH OF THE SOUTHERN CONTINENT.

When someone who is not a nutter (or a woefully misinformed individual) talks about ‘discovery’ in these sorts of contexts, it does not mean they were the first person to encounter a particular place or thing. It refers to their learning about the existence of something and then sharing that knowledge with others. To be honest, I have never seen a modern historian or writer use ‘discovery’ in the ridiculous sense of being first to encounter something already known to exist by others. There must be one or two examples out there, but for the most part the whole debate is a strawman argument—people simply aren’t that misinformed or  wilfully wrong.

As for how this all came up, I stumbled upon an article by Paul Daley in The Guardian discussing criticism of changes to a guide on appropriate indigenous terminology at the University of NSW. We’re talking mostly sensible thigs like writing ‘elders’ and not ‘chiefs’, ‘Aboriginal people’ not ‘blacks’. But it also covered the terminology of ‘discovery’.

First, I was struck by Daley’s comment in which he writes in relation to the example of James Cook: “Cook mapped the east coast of this continent [Australia]. But he hardly discovered it.”

That’s right in the narrow sense, and wrong in the sense that historians and writers actually use the word. The UNSW guide Daley is referring to inadvertently tells us how Daley has missed the point. Here’s what the guide says:

More appropriate

  • Captain Cook was the first Englishman to map the east coast of “New Holland”.

Less appropriate

  • Captain Cook “discovered” Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were in Australia long before Captain Cook arrived; hence it was impossible for Cook to be the first person to “discover” Australia. Most Aboriginal people find the use of the word “discovery” offensive. However, it can be noted that the word “discovery” can mean finding something that one as an individual did not know was there. This meaning should be stressed if the word is to be used. One reason why so much had to be “discovered” is the fact that Indigenous knowledge was discounted and disregarded for so long.

That is pretty much on the ball. Anyone who suggests Cook was the first person to encounter Australian or even eastern Australian shores is a sure-fire lunatic (or an undergrad student destined to be swiftly disabused of this notion at their respective universities; it’s no coincidence that it is exactly this group at whom the UNSW guide is aimed). I don’t know of any of these people who have been published in the last 30 years making such outrageous claims in print. Do they exist?

To be clear: Europeans did not know land existed where Cook encountered it, and it is in that sense that Cook can be fairly said to have discovered that land (to Europeans). It is not meant to deny indigenous presence or knowledge, and to construe it that way strikes me as miserly and needlessly contrarian. Indeed, why fight that fight when there are more important and worthy fights to be fought?

So, having essentially agreed with the UNSW guide up to this point, I do have to aver on one point. Where it says the following I’d suggest it has gone completely off the rails:

More appropriate

  • “… since the beginning of the Dreaming/s”

“Since the beginning of the Dreaming/s” reflects the beliefs of many Indigenous Australians that they have always been in Australia, from the beginning of time, and came from the land.

Less appropriate

  • “Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for 40,000 years”

Forty thousand years puts a limit on the occupation of Australia and thus tends to lend support to migration theories and anthropological assumptions. Many Indigenous Australians see this sort of measurement and quantifying as inappropriate.

Well, many peoples have many beliefs. But when you are talking about facts you really need to use facts and not feelings or beliefs. Unless the claim is a serious scientific/historical claim that humanity has existed forever(!) and began in Australia (completely rewriting the history of evolution and a million other things), then you have to put a figure on it, just like the Beyoncé song says.

For the record, I think that the article by Stan Grant that came out in The Guardian the day after Daley’s was spot on. Read it here.


Rhodes Must Not Fall

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

Edwin Stanley Brown was a rugby player from the early years of Australian sport, and it was for him that a Toowoomba sportsground named a section of seating the “E. S. ‘Nigger’ Brown” stand. It was a sporting memorial. A tribute. An honour—that happened to include the word “nigger”.

It was around the time WWI began; whoever gave Brown that name—his family, his friends, his sporting community—they weren’t denigrating him. More than likely they were commenting on his whiteness. It was like calling a redhead named Frank “Bluey”, or a short guy named Tim “Big Tim”. It’s merely pointing to something striking about a person through the dim wit of antithesis.

And, of course, the opposite of being unusually white is being black, like a deep well or a dark night or… an aboriginal person… so the thinking went. Only, back then, it would have been outright strange to call a bloke Edwin “Aboriginal” Brown or Edwin “Indigenous” Brown. “Nigger” and various other terms were the accepted lingo, so that’s what they called him. It was no big deal.

But it is a big deal now. To continue to use that name in an unconsidered way, as it was on the “E. S. ‘Nigger’ Brown” stand, is to say: “It’s a joke, it’s funny,” or “No one gets hurt by seeing that name on something that is meant for the community”, or “It’s ok if we use that word in the right way”.

When a few years ago the Australian government decided to change the name of that stand, it went beyond knee-jerk political correctness. It was the right thing. It had nothing to do with Brown being unworthy of remembrance, and everything to do with a desire to reshape the present. People might be justifiably upset to see “Nigger” in stencilled lettering on a rugby stand and to have acts of past casual racism become acts of present casual racism. It was important then, and it’s important now because it has helped shaped now.

The question is, how far do we go in sanitising the present from the invidious legacies of the past? Across the globe there have been a litany of instances where people have campaigned for the removal of memorials of historical figures who were slave owners or who subscribed to racist precepts or supported colonial ambitions, or were sons of bitches in any number of ways. The most prominent current campaign is: Rhodes must fall! Hashtag.

I have at times been accused of being a historian, and until five seconds ago I knew next to nothing about Rhodes. He was merely the name attached to the Rhodes Scholarship, which in my mind is and has long been the most prestigious scholarship in the world, given to up-and-comers with great scholarly or political potential. They are sent to Oxford, one of the best universities in the world. Presidents and prime ministers and Man Booker Prize winners litter the ranks of Rhodes scholars.

Knowing next to nothing, my initial reaction to the campaign seeking to remove the Rhodes statue at Oxford was: largely pointless. The campaigners are focused on elements of Rhodes’ past—his colonial mindset and “achievements”—that are not particularly well known by your average person and thus cannot be said to be exalted. And there’s definitely no one out there saying that because Rhodes was a colonialist maybe there’s something to be said for colonialism.

There’s also the broader point about a present-centric sanctimony. Scratch the surface of any historical figure and not a single one can possibly escape unscathed from a thorough accounting of their beliefs and practices from the beautiful clarity and moral hegemony of current perspectives. Not one—if we had perfect evidence of their entire life.

That was my initial reaction. But not being fond of ignorance, I’m compelled to ask: so who was this cocksucker, anyway? It took about four seconds of reading to understand the depths of Rhodes’ colonial mindset. He was a great believer in empire—in the British empire. He believed in expanding and consolidating that empire at the expense of any and all others, but especially at the expense of those who were ripe for dominion, like the Africans and South Americans and south Asians and the Arabs. Any place filled with the uncivilised, that wasn’t already white or powerful.

Rhodes was a very rich man, and so upon his death he was able to bequeath a set of scholarships for manly men of a British persuasion. He wanted to incubate new colonialists in the British way. That’s why the scholars were to go to Oxford.

This got me to thinking: all those Rhodes scholars I already knew about, they have something in common. They are powerful white men. I thought about Australia and our Rhodes scholars who became politicians. Prime Minister Bob Hawke, almost-Prime Minister Kim Beazley, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who is doing such a fine job of shitting on his liberal credentials. What do they have in common?

They’re white.

And men.

From wealthy backgrounds.

Who support policies that fuck refugees.

Me cago en la leche!

Now, does this mean that these politicians support or supported policies that fuck refugees because of the Rhodes Scholarship? Perhaps not. But it is enough to prompt one to think about their commonalities and the broad set of conditions they share that would allow them to become the sort of men who are willing and able to fuck refugees. That is, it’s prompted me to think about privilege and institutional racism.

Right, then, back to the point. Rhodes was a decent bloke in some respects, and a motherfucker in others. Even in his own time he was a motherfucker: we’re not talking about Bartolomeu Dias and 1488, we’re talking about the years leading up to WWI. About yesterday. About the period that turned Africa into the terrible mess it is right now.

Rhodes is worth knowing about if you are the sort of person who wants to know about such things. Indeed, it is much better to know about Rhodes and his achievements and legacies and what drove him, than it is to rid him from our consciousness. There’s understanding to be had.

Which is to say, I think Rhodes’ statue should stay. For ignorant bastards like myself who might nevertheless pause to read something edifying, a plaque or something of the order should be installed beneath Rhodes’ statue, pointing to his legacy. Allow people to remember that such men were important men, and important men achieved important things, and many of those important things were fucking terrible. We need to know, not forget and not place the burden of remembering onto the shoulders of a few eager history and politics students.

I think we should let Oxford wear its colonial and racist past on its lapel. Turn this into something good and useful. In the future, tens of thousands of influentiable young students will walk before that statue. Some will gaze at it. Some would read my imaginary plaque and learn. Such a plaque could be free of heavy-handed judgement. It could merely quote Rhodes and let the reader think about it for themselves.

I know! A little juxtaposition, a favourite at universities. Start with the actual words of Rhodes’ bequest:

My desire being that the students who shall be elected to the scholarships shall not be merely book-worms, I direct that in the election of a student to a scholarship, regard shall be had to:

  1. His literary and scholastic attainments.

  2. His fondness of and success in manly outdoor sports, such as cricket, football and the like.

  3. His qualities of manhood, truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for the protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness, and fellowship, and

  4. His exhibition during school days of moral force of character and of instincts to lead and to take an interest in his schoolmates, for those latter attributes will be likely in after-life to guide him to esteem the performance of public duties as his highest aim.

Then, to shed further light on what might at this point appear to be anachronistic thinking and nothing more, juxtapose the following quotation from his formative years, from when he was a young man with a fire in his belly, keen to remake the world:

I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives. I contend that every acre added to our territory means in the future birth to some more of the English race who otherwise would not be brought into existence.

Me cago en la leche!

Enough to spark minds, I contend. A few of the influentiable would read that and find out more and—being of course from Oxford and destined to be very important themselves—would become men and women of influence who understand this world a little better and seek to make it a little better thanks to what they know.

Oxford would be acknowledging their history. A colonial history. It’s better than forgetting, or constraining such knowledge to those who have the time or money or inclination to take a history course on colonialism.

Don’t tear down. Repurpose. Make it a statue that shames us, or them, or… just makes you think “well some-fucking-body should be ashamed!”

Make it mean what you think it should mean in this moment. That’s the truly postcolonial, postmodern thing to do.

Tearing down is not teaching, not opening minds, not ameliorating wrongs. Its sanitising for the sake of forgetting. As I understand it, forgetting is the opposite of what the Rhodes Must Fall campaign is about. So make the means match. Repurpose Rhodes. You could even put a hashtag on that.

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