STAN GRANT The Queen is Dead: The time has come for a reckoning. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck
Stan Grant remains committed to responding with love as he interrogates Whiteness in Australia and around the world.
In The Queen is Dead Stan Grant uses the death of the person he calls ‘The White Queen’ as a springboard to discuss not only fundamental questions about Australia and its sense of itself but also, and more importantly, the human condition. ‘All my life,’ he writes, ‘I have asked the question: what do we do with catastrophe?’ He has stared into the abyss within Australia and internationally, and his book is an attempt to come to terms with what he has seen.
Grant has assumed the role of a public intellectual with his work as a journalist and presenter with the ABC, the publication of four books, documentaries, films and other works. What may be less well-known is that he has reported from more than 80 countries, many of which have been devastated by war and large-scale killing of local populations. He has been a witness to misery and despair across the globe.
Stan Grant is a descendant of the people who were here before the invasion of the continent by the English. Some might describe him as an Aboriginal person, but Grant objects to being categorised by others. He asks, ‘What is it to be Aboriginal? What on Earth does that word even mean? It was not our word. If I ask my father, he would say he is Wiradjuri. That means something. It is connected to place and kin and culture.’ He also sees himself as being Kamilaroi and Dharrawal, kin from his mother’s side of the family. More importantly, he regards himself as being a member of the human race. He objects to labelling people as this colour or that as it leads to racism, discrimination, oppression, hatred and a quick and ready descent into the abyss.
Grant’s investigation of the abyss operates at three levels: that of himself and his family members since 1788; that of the various nations and kin groups that constituted Australia before 1788, their subsequent treatment by Whites under the Crown under ‘The White Queen’ and her respective forebears; and the history of the world more generally.
Grant maintains that the death of ‘The White Queen’ marks a turning point:
Around the world there is a reckoning with Whiteness. The North Star of Whiteness is dimming. Everywhere the legacy of empire, the legacy of Whiteness, is contested. It is volatile. It is unpredictable. It swings widely from left to right, from hope to despair … Democracy is in retreat. It has lost its moral core. Democracy has been captured by big money and big power. It cannot speak to voices that demand to be heard. Demagogues exploit anxiety and fear, fan racism and xenophobia to claim power. These false prophets promise to return nations to some fantasy of former glory.
The latter part of the eighteenth century was associated with the Enlightenment: notions of the Rights of Man, the American Revolution proclaiming the self-evident truth ‘that all men are created equal’ and the French Revolution espousing principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. It was also a time when White European nations sought to colonise people with different coloured skins in other parts of the world. This was the very period in which the English invaded Australia and began their attack on its inhabitants. For Grant, Whiteness is an invention used by those who see themselves as superior to tyrannise those they regard as inferior.
Grant says, ‘After hundreds of years of exporting – mostly violently – the liberal dreams of White men, Whiteness slips the knot. It makes a virtue of its power.’ Whiteness promises freedom. He comments, ‘the freedom of Whiteness is a lie to so many. And in that space between the promise of freedom and the lie of freedom are the graveyards of history.’ Grant also observes that ‘Liberalism, fascism, socialism, communism: each has competed with its own utopian vision. Each has descended into terror and tyranny. Each has been put in service of power.’ He points out how liberalism has always promised freedom, but for him, ‘There is just the mantra of freedom, which for the greatest number in the world has always carried the echo of gunfire.’ Grant observes that:
Under their flags, nations committed to Whiteness have erased entire populations, mine included. They have not been held to account … The West is comfortable with the suffering of people if it furthers the interests of its own power.
He is wary of those who march under the banner of identity politics and seek to redress ‘wrongs’ of the past. He says, ‘Identities can give us voice … But identity can also – and far more often than not, in fact – be a pathway to tyranny.’
At a minimum, he wants others to acknowledge history:
[This] is what Whiteness does with history. It washes the blood from the walls. History is a straight road for those deemed White. For me it is a roundabout, an endless loop; my ancestors are always there and I am always coming around to meet myself.
If we can bury history, we need never study our own reflection. I can see how tempting that is. History can be a pitiless place. It is a trapdoor. There is nothing to break our fall. No soft place to land. We cannot undo it, or remake it. We are in freefall, reaching for branches of justice or restitution, but each remains just out of our grasp. Better to leave history alone. But we cannot. Not those of us for whom history is not a sepia-toned photograph but shards of broken glass.
A potential way forward is a combination of hope and love. He is aware that ‘hope can be a false god’, and says:
But I know to lose my hope would be shameful. It is not what I was raised for. If I think only of myself I can feel hopeless, but if I think of others I cannot. It would be a sin to remove hope from a world already hopeless. My ancestors would be ashamed of me …
I will always respond with love. I will always prefer kindness. That is the gift of my ancestors.
He returns to the question of what do we do after catastrophe:
We give back love. We find words to speak love. Vengeance, resentment – what does that do? Evil begets evil. The victim today is the perpetrator tomorrow. And on it goes … When hope seems lost, and it often does, there is love. It is a love that is not sentimental. Not just love for enemies but love because love lives inside us. This rescues me from the word games of Whiteness; from nihilism. Nihilism comes easy on a full stomach. But in the burning hunger of our despair, that’s when we find the true meaning of our love … Until we can speak to each other in this land, this place Australia, can we call ourselves a people?
The Queen is Dead is his attempt to make sense of the abyss and to find a way to places where there is love. He canvasses many more issues, including insights from a wide range of philosophers, historians and authors who have examined catastrophes such as mass slaughter, holocausts, pogroms, wars, national identity and xenophobia, discrimination and hatred; how the success of Black athletes challenges notions of White supremacy, going back to champion boxer Jack Johnson and up to the likes of Adam Goodes; the long history of the violence of English colonialism starting with Ireland, Australia and other parts of the globe and its invention of concentration camps in the Boer War; America with its dispossession of Native Americans, its long history of slavery and, following abolition, discrimination and marginalisation of African Americans and their never-ending random and wanton killing by Whites; and the rise of China and its implications for White hegemony.
As I worked my way through The Queen is Dead I found myself being impressed by the breadth and depth of his analysis and perspectives.
Stan Grant’s The Queen is Dead is the most profound and interesting book I have read in a long time. It will be regarded as a seminal work on the path of Australians coming to terms with their history.
Stan Grant The Queen is Dead: The time has come for a reckoning Fourth Estate 2023 PB 320pp $34.99
Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things.
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