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The trouble with Auckland Museum’s macho terrorism statement

The day after the Brussels bombings, Auckland’s War Memorial Museum released a bizarre statement on history, terror and good vs evil. What on earth were they thinking, asks Janet McAllister.

Who said it: George W Bush or Auckland Museum?

1. “Terror only wins if we flinch.”

2. “Terrorists commit atrocities because they want the civilized world to flinch and retreat so they can impose their totalitarian vision. There will be no flinching in this war on terror, and there will be no retreat.”

3. “All nations of the world face a challenge and a choice. In continued acts of murder and destruction, terrorists are testing our will, hoping we will weaken and withdraw.”

4. “As people who believe in the sanctity of human life and whose values encompass free speech, decency, fairness and democracy, we believe that history tells us that good will prevail…”

5. “We will continue this war on terror … And we will prevail.”

Answers:

1 and 4 are Auckland Museum, March 2016

2, 3 and 5 are Dubya, Aug 2003

“As people who believe in the sanctity of human life and whose values encompass free speech, decency, fairness and democracy, we believe that history tells us that good will prevail and terror only wins if we flinch.”

–          Auckland Museum, March 2016

Reading the statement above is like seeing your trusted doctor prescribe homeopathy or hearing an astrophysicist ask for your star sign. And because it’s the Auckland Museum, it’s not like just any star gazer has turned into a dippy Titirangi astrologist, it’s Stephen Hawking. In 37 words, the museum has done a Christopher Hitchens, a Ross Meurant, a Donna Awatere-Huata, and reversed everything it stands for. “So many, many questions are raised for me in that statement…” says renowned historian Dr Aroha Harris, co-author of the 2015 Royal Society of NZ Science Book of the Year, Tangata Whenua. “Does anyone besides me now feel a headache coming on?”

The Great AM has got its historiographical ABCs muddled up so badly that it should give back all its public funding and go sit in a corner reading Tamsin Hanly’s new self-funded New Zealand history books, and not come back until it’s passed NCEA level 1.

ANZAC Day at Auckland Museum, 2013. Photo Hannah Johnston/Getty

ANZAC Day at Auckland Museum, 2013. Photo Hannah Johnston/Getty

So what’s the problem exactly? Let’s break it down:

The Museum expresses faith that history offers two options in any situation: (1) good prevails or (2) good doesn’t prevail because we flinched and let terror win instead (“we” being “people who believe in the sanctity of human life” etc).

So you’re either on the side of good or terror, He-Man or Skeletor, Jem or the Misfits, with no middle ground. That’s not even true in superhero movies, so let’s be generous and interpret “good” as “being kind to animals and not stuffing up too much”.

Now let’s test this belief in prevailing good weather against actual history:

World War II

Goodies: Winston Churchill (although he’s a goodie only as far as white people go. Let’s not talk about his arrogant stuff-ups re Gallipoli or India or Kenya or Pakistan or Sudan or…)

Baddies: Nazis

Result: Winston won, and therefore good prevailed.

A clearcut case; the theory works. Except what about those people killed in World War II, around 3% of the world’s entire population? Good didn’t prevail for those people, did it?

Tricky – but the museum’s theory is up to the challenge of explaining how this happened:

World War II take 2

Goodies: Anne Frank

Baddies: Nazis

Result: Nazis won, and therefore Anne Frank must have flinched.

The museum’s theory is definite on this point: Anne should have just stood staunch. Ditto every other victim in history (see also: Syrian refugees, Rwandan genocide victims, Chrystal in Crotchgate). It’s not like these people had to do anything, they just shouldn’t have flinched. That’s all it would have taken to beat terror.

Via a false dichotomy of good vs terror, the museum encourages victim blaming and smug self-satisfied armchair inaction. What do we have to do for good to prevail? Not flinch. So it’s best to just keep calm and carry on doing nothing. Don’t rebel, don’t shout, don’t rock the boat, just sit tight like good little petrified lambs and we’ll all live happily ever after.

“History tells us that good will prevail”. The underlying supposition here is that, for the most part, good has already been installed and is currently king. And, as good can’t be built on unjust wars and stolen land, Godzone was clearly not founded on Parihaka but pavlovas.

Excitingly for nerds, history battles are heating up all over the Anglophone world. Statues of colonial plunderer Cecil Rhodes are under threat at Oxford University but 60% of Britons are proud of the British Empire, while closer to home there’s bitter debate about whether 26 January should be celebrated as “Australia Day” or mourned as “Invasion Day”. Interesting things are happening in New Zealand too: Manu Samoa rugby player Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu has described the history teaching he received in Auckland as “white supremacist”, while a 13,000-signature petition recently asked for the New Zealand Land Wars to be taught in all schools.

Meanwhile, Auckland Museum is trying to fob us off with Fox News mumbo-jumbo. If you disagree, the museum’s “with us or against us” framing paints you as a murdering bastard whose values encompass censorship, communism, darkness and bad words.

But history teaches me that absolute goodness doesn’t exist; that sometimes we’re given a choice between two evils, like voting for the National Epsom candidate or letting Act win. History teaches me that regimes I agree with don’t always prevail; and that when they do, it’s because people have worked hard, and are peddling furiously to keep them on top. History teaches me that the vulnerable get bashed up. You already know this. It’s ridiculous that the establishment built on Pukekawa, the Hill of Bitter Tears, is still in the dark.

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