remembering histories and politics

by tobybee

I was at a Holocaust studies conference in the UK recently, and there was a lot of discussion throughout about what was the best way to teach students about the Holocaust: what messages, what ideas, what knowledge, should be taught? What are the ethical ways of teaching those happenings, and the ethical ways of using survivor testimony?

One of the worst papers I saw was by a couple of educators from a Holocaust museum in northern England, whose exhibition directed at primary school aged students, called ‘The Journey’, encouraged students to relate to the Holocaust on an emotional level. In the promotional video they showed us, students talked at the level of the affective, commenting on how sad they felt, how they felt changed and moved by the experience of learning about one (imaginary) boys experiences of the Holocaust. They commented little about ideas of history or politics that they had learned, and indeed they confused the imagined stories and fake artefacts they had interacted with for things which had been a part of the Holocaust.

Without knowing to what extent this was all that the students discussed, and to what extent it was what the museum put together for promotional use, imagining that funders would be drawn in more by this call to emotion, and while acknowledging how incredibly difficult it is to devise a curriculum about the Holocaust for primary school-aged children, it seems to me illustrative of a larger, de-historicising, de-politicising problem. And I comment on this here because that presentation and discussion came to mind this morning in thinking about the various responses to the new policy implemented to ‘deal with’ asylum seekers and refugees.

To jump across continents, and think about the majority of the progressive responses in Australia to the ALP’s new policy of dealing with those asylum seekers who come by boat by refusing them access to Australia, now and forever, it would seem that a similar call to the emotional dominates. As just one example, the Greens have a new campaign, entitled “Not in my name, Not with my vote”. They say

The race to the bottom on refugees has led to cruel policies of sending any person who comes by boat to dangerous and inhumane conditions in camps in PNG and Nauru, never to be resettled in Australia.

These cruel policies do not fit with my hopes for a decent, humane and caring Australia. When we play politics with people’s lives by exploiting fear, we lose humanity as a nation. It doesn’t need to be this way.
Tell Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott you won’t take part in this race to punish refugees.

If you support a fair and humane approach for refugees, join the campaign to say
Not in my name, not with my vote


Such words imagine that there has been an Australia, at the level of government, which was “decent, human and caring”. It asks us to respond to what Rudd is doing because we feel hurt by his ideas, and because of notions of an abstract “humanity” that is expression of feelings.

But lots of us have responded in this way, myself included: we have spoken primarily of shame, anger and sadness.

In doing so, we miss the historical and the political: that these are not policies that (only, or primarily) exist in the emotional register, but they are fully in line with a biopolitical history of colonisation, wherein the racial make-up of the Australian population is controlled, and Indigenous people removed and replaced with particular types and bodies of people; where this is governed through racialised immigration policies that seek to continually make a White Australia; which determine which women are allowed to give birth, which fetuses are prioritised, and which are to not be allowed to exist; and which is in line with the neoliberal capitalist practices of moving money from public funds to private companies such as G4S, Toll Holdings and Serco, to name just a few of the historical processes at work in this continual determining of borders, sovereignty, and nationalism. What is being done by this government is properly in accord with Australian governmental histories. To talk primarily of sadness and shame, to prioritise thinking of Australia as more humane, is to cover over these histories. This, it would seem, only makes it more difficult for them to be undone, for a politicised activist response to be undertaken.