United by our divisions

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Opinions of historical monuments have polarized us, regardless of the country you call home


  • Statue of Captain Cook. Photo: chelsealwood, via flickr

  • Statue of Captain Cook. Photo: Kimon Berlin, via flickr

I’ve been interning at Straus News for three weeks now. Being away from my hometown of Adelaide, Australia, I inevitably miss important events that take place. The most recent was Australia Day, our national public holiday, on January 26. I wasn’t too bothered about missing it; apart from it mostly being a piss-up (Australian slang for binge drinking), I’ve grown tired of the discourse about the holiday.

Political history and how we celebrate it has become a major topic around the western world. Before coming to New York I was already aware of this issue in America, particularly the removal of statues of Confederate leaders, although the existence of them in the first place never made sense to me. Vandalism and the proposed removal of statues has become a major political battleground, with the president even weighing in, not that he ever needs motivation to share his opinion.

What was interesting to learn is that Manhattan is having a strong debate over what monuments are appropriate, with monuments being vandalized in protest. Mayor de Blasio just released the recommendations from the City Art, Monuments, and Makers commission on January 12, which has outlined changes that include the addition of historical markers and informational plaques to numerous monuments, including those of Dr. J. Marion Sims, former President Theodore Roosevelt and Christopher Columbus.

Just as Columbus was known for his expedition to America, it was Captain James Cook who first landed in Australia. On the eve of this year’s Australia Day, the statue of Captain Cook in Melbourne was covered in pink paint in protest.

Australia Day marks the anniversary of Captain Arthur Phillip landing in Port Jackson (present-day Sydney) in 1788; Captain Cook scouted this years earlier for the British Empire, as the empire had lost one of its former colonies (I won’t name names). Colonizers were brutal, and the Australian indigenous population faced a similar fate to that of Native Americans. Murder and disease decimated the indigenous aboriginals from an estimated one million down to 100,000 by the 20th century and they’re disproportionately disadvantaged in society.

On Australia Day, the Australian of the Year awards and honors are presented, and ceremonies are held for new citizens. However, most people typically celebrate by getting drunk at barbeques. Annual protests dominate the news cycle on the day, which protesters have nicknamed “Invasion Day.” This year’s protests saw tens of thousands of people in capital cities marching and proposing a more inclusive holiday. This may sound familiar. In the U.S., “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” is becoming a popular counter-celebration to Columbus Day.

Although not a physical monument, the Triple J Hottest 100 songs are traditionally played on this day and are a quintessential part of Australia Day celebrations. People vote for the best songs of the year and listen to the countdown at parties all over the country. Late last year, the broadcaster changed the date in response to growing discontent with the celebration of the holiday. A subsidiary of the government-sponsored Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Triple J is the forefront of youth counterculture in Australia. They give a platform to some of the country’s biggest alternative music acts and discussions of social issues. Because of their standing, the station felt the obligation to take the lead on this issue.

Some local councils in Australia have already made changes. The Western Australian town of Fremantle changed their official celebrations to make it two days later; Melbourne city councils of Yarra and Darebin will no longer hold their citizenship ceremonies on that day.

The future of Australia Day is worth paying attention to for Manhattanites. How that discourse evolves may set a precedent for the future in this country. As a witness to debates in both Australia and United States, I’ve seen parallels between the counter-arguments used. “Get over it,” “Why are we being blamed for what happened hundreds of years ago?” or “There was no civilization before Europeans arrived, they can go back to using sticks and stones” are common refrains. There’s also the argument that removing the disputed monuments is covering up history. Ultimately, how we pay our respects to history has become a complex situation, and another political battleground in what has become a bitter and divided world.

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