Statue vandalism: more than a black and white issue

Sometimes I wonder whether outrage gets lost on the way.

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It misreads a sign, takes a wrong turn and all of a sudden, ends up somewhere it’s not supposed to be. Then maybe it gets embarrassed, or is tired after the journey. And so stays put in the unintended location, simply because it’s easier that way.

How else to explain the hoo-ha and hyperventilation over the spray painting of statues in Sydney’s Hyde Park?

According to police, early on Saturday morning, statues of British explorer Captain James Cook and 19th century NSW governor Lachlan Macquarie were vandalised. Cook and Macquarie had “change the date” blasted over their bases, while Cook – whose statue bears the (inaccurate) inscription “discovered this territory in 1770” – also had “no pride in genocide”.

The political reaction has been swift and fierce.

On Saturday afternoon, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull posted an impassioned 525 words to Facebook, railing against the “cowardly criminal act”. He added the graffiti was “part of a deeply disturbing and totalitarian campaign to not just challenge our history but to deny it and obliterate it”, before comparing it to the work of Soviet dictator and well known preserver of human life, Joseph Stalin.

“When [Stalin] fell out with his henchmen he didn’t just execute them, they were removed from all official photographs,” Turnbull wrote. “Tearing down or defacing statues of our colonial era explorers and governors is not much better than that.”

Treasurer Scott Morrison, who is also the member for Cook, similarly jumped on Facebook, calling the graffiti a “bloody disgrace” and “an insult to all fair-minded Australians”.

“This divisive BS political grandstanding and vandalism does nothing but indulge the egos of the perpetrators.”

Let’s pause for a chamomile tea break.

So far police have released a description of a lone man (“of Caucasian appearance”) in relation to the vandalism, which also involved some park benches and Hyde Park’s ANZAC memorial. It is difficult to understand how the spray painting spree could even begin to “obliterate” any Australian history. Or how on earth it can be equated with the heinous repression of Stalin’s brutal regime.

Taking the vandalism element away for a moment, the sentiments expressed on the statues fall within the normal spectrum of political debate. Quite apart from the small handful of local councils planning to boycott Australia Day, every year around January 26 there is a discussion about whether it is the most appropriate day to celebrate Australia.

“Genocide” has a narrow legal definition. But there is no argument that Indigenous Australians died violently and in large numbers as the result of British colonisation. According to a recent Newcastle University project, there were at least 150 recorded massacres of Aboriginal people in Eastern Australia between 1794 and 1872. And Governor Macquarie – of the statue fame – officially sanctioned the deaths of at least 14 Indigenous people in 1816 in what became known as the Appin Massacre.

So what is so dangerous and so unreasonable about questioning the modern suitability of the Hyde Park monuments? Disagree with the method, sure. But the message, while provocative, is not particularly zany.

Meanwhile, as our political leaders talk about how offended they are, some breathtakingly offensive things continue to happen vis a vis Indigenous history and culture.

Earlier this month the Queensland government discontinued the use of nine place names that used the term “nigger”. This meant that until just two weeks ago, there were officially seven Nigger creeks in the state, as well as a Mount Nigger and Nigger Head.

Over in the Northern Territory, between 20 and 30 per cent of visitors to Uluru climb the sacred site, despite the clear wishes of the traditional owners that they don’t. You can’t blame clueless overseas tourists here, either – about two-thirds of this group are Australians. In a further insult to the Anangu people, as Fairfax Media’s Julie Power recently reported, climbers leave rubbish on Uluru. They also, incomprehensibly, relieve themselves up there (there are no toilets).

Unfortunately Uluru is not the only one to get this astounding treatment. Last year, a tradie lost his job after he allegedly defecated on Karlu Karlu (the Devils Marbles), a sacred site near Tennant Creek. His mates helpfully took video footage, which emerged earlier this year. There’s also the rock art that has been vandalised in Arnhem Land. Some ingenious types painted over the ancient and sacred art with value-adding tags such as “Owen” and “2Pac”.

And then there’s Adam Goodes’ plaque on the Australian of the Year walk in Canberra. As the ABC reported last year, there are 56 plaques on the walk but only one was shielded by perspex. Goodes’ face has previously been crossed out with a deep scratch. According to the National Capital Authority, the perspex was installed to prevent further damage.

But where is the widespread outrage over these incidents? Where is the buy-in from political leaders? The sustained media interest? The hand-wringing about what it all means for national identity?

Here’s hoping it just got lost and ended up somewhere else by mistake. The alternative isn’t very flattering to contemplate.

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