When I saw the title of this book I assumed, incorrectly as it turns out, that it was responding to that ANZAC day exhortation “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them”. Well, not only did I get the words wrong, but the title is in fact a quote from Hegel: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings with the falling of the dusk”. It appears as the very last sentence in this book, and in many ways it encapsulates the preceding 314 pages with its appeal to Hegel and its ultimately pessimistic tone.
As a well-known journalist and – increasingly – public intellectual, Stan Grant has been writing about himself, his indigenous/Irish heritage and themes of identity and Australianness for many years. I was interested to read this book because he steps beyond these themes to reflect on the present historical moment, informed both by his own experience as a foreign correspondent and as an indigenous commentator on identity and history. Subtitled ‘A chronicle of the world in crisis’, I must confess to being more interested in ‘the world’ rather than Stan Grant himself.
Grant’s various postings form the narrative skeleton of this book. The prologue starts on a train to China on Christmas Day, with his wife and children still asleep, at the commencement of his posting to Beijing as CNN’s foreign correspondent. He stares at an old man in a field, and thinks about all the things that this man would have seen during his life: the birth of the People’s Republic, the veneration of Chairman Mao, the Cultural Revolution and now the urbanization of the new generation. He then launches into his Introduction, which reflects on COVID, suggesting that it has centralized government control, revealed the fragility of democracy and brought the looming threat of authoritarianism. (I do not agree with him here). He suggests that we find ourselves at ‘a hinge point in history’ (p. 22), where the United States is staring down China, with democracy challenged by “the blood of identity, poured through the strainer of history” (p. 29) and COVID overlaying “this mix of great power rivalry, fear of war, rising authoritarianism, retreating democracy, political populism, nationalism, tribalism and toxic weaponized identity” (p. 31).
Finally, at p 37, he starts the book proper, although his opening chapter ‘The End of History’ continues with this scene-setting introduction, drawing particularly on Hegel’s philosophy of history. He is rather fond of ‘hinge points’ and ‘turning points’, and after acknowledging that ‘received wisdom’ sees 1989 as a turning point, he nominates instead 1979. Why 1979? Because the Clash released ‘London Calling’, Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives to power and the Red Army invaded Afghanistan. Not, I feel, a strong defence of his choice of 1979, but he does return to the year 1979 a number of times during the book. Chapter 2 ‘The Return of History’ is the start of his own recounting of his life as a foreign correspondent, where he talks about his employment by CNN and deployment to Hong Kong as the first step of this new career.
In the chapters that follow, he gives a good overview of recent Chinese history, interwoven with his own biography. (Grant currently hosts a weekly program China Tonight on the ABC). He devotes several chapters to China: its history, Mao, the rise of Xi Jinping, and the rise of a China determined to reclaim its place after a century of humiliation. He then moves to other countries as his overseas postings lead him to North Korea, to Pakistan, Afghanistan. He feels the pull of identification with the people he meets through his own indigenous identity:
I was not born of the West, but the West was certainly born in me. By the time I was born, Australia was opening up for my people. I was always acutely aware that I was a bridge between my parents’ lives and mine. They had been locked out, segregated, denied the West’s greatest promise: progress. Change was long and hard, and we still walk that road. My people- Aboriginal people – are the most impoverished and imprisoned in Australia (p.81)…
The things I have seen weigh heavily on my soul. It isn’t just the violence and the misery that I reported on, but the stories of these people, which connected deeply with my own. When I looked into the eyes of a child or a parent in a refugee camp, I saw the eyes of my own family. Reporting the world was my way of trying to understand myself. Like the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq or China, I had been shaped by history. My family’s story, too, was one of invasion, occupation, colonisation and oppression. We had been left on the margins, excluded, impoverished and imprisoned. I knew how easy it was for small peoples everywhere to feel the humiliation of history, to feel angry and grow bitter at some still-open wound, and to hate the people you believe inflicted itp.219
After travelling through these Asian and Middle Eastern countries, he closes the book by turning to America, and the flabby impotence of liberalism, “a timid faith, a tepid, bloodless idea but one with which white people have ruled the world.” (p. 266) He despises Trump, but is equally damning of Obama and Clinton. He sees Biden as part of the same problem of meritocracy, entitlement and inequality. It’s a bleak vision
We are all on the highway of despair. As for the idea of truth, there is debate now about what that even means. Democracy itself has broken with liberalism, hijacked by demagogues who use it as a cover for tyranny. The champions of liberal democracy…now confront the prospect that their great faith itself will not outlast history.p.313
I was drawn to read this book after hearing Grant give the Manning Clark lecture, which you can hear on Big Ideas. I now realize that much of that lecture was drawn verbatim from this book. I had thought that Grant had laced his lecturer so heavily with references to histories and other secondary sources because it was the Manning Clark lecture (Manning Clark was, after all, the Grand Old Man of Australian History). But I now realize that the whole book is like this, combining personal reminiscence with analysis bolted together with quotes from numerous sources. I found myself frustrated by this frequent recourse to the juicy quote, without the footnotes needed to check it further, and I found myself wondering, rather unkindly, why he felt that he needed to cloak his own work with so many words and works of other people. The book sorely lacks an index, and I was surprised that it was marred by so many small proof-reading errors. If you have seen or heard Stan Grant, you will know that he speaks in the cadences of the prophet or the preacher, and yet in several places his prose takes on the awkward, somewhat obsequious ‘well-done-that-fellow’-tone that you find in military histories and the letters inserted in Christmas cards:
I worked closely with an Iranian-American cameraman, Farhad Shadravan, who was the most talented camera operator I had ever worked with; he also became one of the closest friends I have in the world. His family is my family, and we are bonded in ways that can never be broken.p. 216
The final chapters of the book look at current events. He is not the first commentator to parallel the 1930s with current events:
What happened then, and how can we learn from that today? I can break it down to four things: hubris, history, resentment and identity. Each feeds the other: the hubris of victory and a faith in moral or political universalism inflicts humiliation that breeds anger and resentment – a victim looking for someone to blame- and this hardens into an identity of ‘us versus them’p.291
He may speak in the tones of the preacher, but there is no redemption in his final pages. Instead, he leaves us in the gloom of the dusk, and I could find little of the “capacity for negotiation, forgiveness and hope” mentioned in the blurb on the back cover.
I also wanted to read this book as part of my contribution to Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week that has now finished on the ANZLitlovers page. Stan Grant is probably one of the best-known indigenous commentators in Australia’s public life today. His politics do not fit into an easy right/left category, and I often feel uncomfortable with his opinions. I wanted to read this book precisely because Grant’s questioning of identity and history are played out on a broader canvas than just Australia. But if the theme of NAIDOC this year was ‘Heal Country’, then there’s little healing, comfort or hope on offer here.
My rating: 7/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library