Friday, 15 January 2016

TV review: Death or Liberty, ABC (2016)

When you watch a history program like this that is replete with reconstructions in order to "up" the drama to levels deemed requisite to draw the bog-standard Australian audience you really appreciate what Simon Schama did with his historical programming. Schama of course is an immensely talented writer and general wordsmith, so it's not really fair to make the comparison, but then again ...

This program naturally enough lingered with a certain amount of salaciousness on some of the less attractive aspects of Transportation to the colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land so I felt I owed it to myself to look the other way for most of the program. It wasn't that good anyway, and so I was well-enough occupied on social media with the TV on in the background. I would turn around when the action drew my attention.

Having said these things I can still say it was a worthwhile program. These are stories we should know better than we do, but in our comfortable democracy we prefer just to enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of life instead of dwelling on the sins meted out to martyrs. It's something about Australia. The ideological tone of the place is turned down to "low". It's the reason the community had little patience with grudges imported from the Old Country, which were mostly quickly shut down when they flared up. It's the reason that all those old battles never gained traction on our more egalitarian soil.

Nevertheless, the stories are worth telling. Many of the men celebrated in this program were transported to the colonies for sins against the status quo back in the Old Country. They were political prisoners. But it wasn't their stories and actions that made the colonies such great places to live in the 19th century, but rather economic growth and prosperity, as we learned from reading George Megalogenis' economic history of the nation, Australia's Second Chance. Prosperity created the ideal conditions for equitable distribution of wealth and for the creation of a country where political equality was also possible. The sufferings of martyrs had little or nothing to do with it. Those old stories were not that interesting to the colonists, but property prices were. Plus ca change ...

Of course there remain things that can be done to correct the record, like renaming a few city streets, perhaps. Enough retribution there so that the powers that be can retrospectively atone for sins committed in a less fair time. Obviously Castlereagh Street would be one of the first to go. Then there's Sussex Street and Clarence Street. But then again perhaps we should just let sleeping dogs lie. Better not wake the beast lest we get bitten somewhere painful.

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