Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Nation building - dam busters turned dam builders

The building of community culture is about nation-building from the ground up – but a different kind of nation-building. It’s not so much about bridges, dams and buildings but about connections and skills and capabilities and social institutions that can make a country worth living in.

Chou En Lai once famously (and perhaps actually) said when asked what he saw as the long term effects of the French Revolution, that it was too soon to tell. I like that sort of sense of history. We all have different histories that steer us in different (and similar) ways. My uncle was a navigator on the bombers that burned Dresden. My father was an engineer who built dams. He was part of that generation which helped build a modern Australia that embodied diversity and tolerance – his generation turned from dam busters to dam builders.

It’s a mantle I am happy to have tried to pick up. It’s partly why I feel an affinity with Canberra – it’s integral to a sense of national development as opposed to the narrow state-based view we seem to be moving back towards and it is central to the nation-building vision I identify with so closely.


Disused mining equipment near Maldon, Victoria, © Stephen Cassidy, 2012
It’s no accident that Kevin Rudd, despite all his faults, managed to combine that nation-building vision with the requirement for an apology to the Stolen Generation. As in South Africa and Germany, true leaders saw that grasping modernity had to include coming to grips with the past and mobilising that history to take the country forward. A bad history doesn’t have to be a negative for the future as well as the past, it can actually be something that empowers future generations to do better.


Nation-building from ground up
I have always seen the building of community culture as being about nation-building from the ground up – but a different kind of nation-building. It’s not so much about bridges, dams and buildings but about connections and skills and capabilities and social institutions that can make a country worth living in. It’s one that is inclusive of different cultures and different groups, including the myriad of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘nations’ that comprise Australia. It doesn’t pit one nation against another. It recognises that diversity and the positive interaction between cultures builds resilience and innovation, creativity and productivity.

This kind of nation-building is dam-building by another name. In the Commonwealth Government’s Indigenous culture programs where I worked for many years it was about supporting Indigenous culture but at the same time it was building an Australian culture suitable for the complexities of the modern world.

See also

Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture
‘A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question’, Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

Black diggers - telling war stories
‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. Black Diggers, “the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered” is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’, Black diggers - telling war stories.

‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel
‘Faced with the increasing prospect that it could become the next Australian Government, the Labor Party is reviewing its ‘arts’ policy. Whatever happens and whoever it happens to, considered and strategic discussion of arts and culture policy is critical to Australia's future.’ ‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel.

Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture
‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

Indigenous cultural jobs – real jobs in an unreal world
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.' Real jobs in an unreal world.

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