Given the stories that have rolled out over the past years, it has become difficult to even raise the question of whether it is right for the government to offer a formal apology to the “forgotten Australians” — adults whose lives were often scarred by harsh, exploitative and unloving childrens’ homes and “assisted passage” — i.e. transportation — to Australia in the post WW2 years.

You don’t have to read many of the stories, a selection of which were aired in the Senate inquiry, to have to fight back the urge to weep.

Pity is one emotion, when you out yourself in the place of the child. Incomprehension is another, when you place yourself in the position of the adults. Though by no means all were corrupted by the system, the degree to which the abuse was institutional is pretty staggering. The concurrent revelations about the Irish childrens’ home system revealed an ever darker truth — that it is possible for an entire system to reverse its essential function and become an apparatus for regularised child abuse.

The experience of most of the British-Australian transported children doesn’t feature the lurid experiences of many Irish children, subject to a psychological charnel house, but there aren’t many records of happy and loving childhoods. Overwhelmingly the sense one gets from these stories is that of a negation of childhood, a simple determination at some level that some people would not get childhoods.

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The British-Australian transportees were not alone in this. After all, this was the end of the second world war — about the only product of which there was a global surplus was children. Fifty million or so people had been killed — most of them adults. Throughout the wreckage of Europe bands of children roamed free, self-organised into gangs. In many places numbers of them were simply exterminated en masse, like rats, as occurs in the slums of Brazil, Lagos and elsewhere.

For a world of exhausted, shattered adults unattached children were a problem — not only were they out of control, but they constituted a demand for love and care that was not only beyond collective psychological resources, but which was working in opposition to the dominant feeling of many adults which was that of sadistic excess.

For five years people on both sides of the war had lived under the threat and reality of mechanised death from above. There is no doubt that this f-cked up millions of people to varying degrees. The human psyche is not made for that level of caprice and destruction. Bombing is infantilising, because there is nothing you can do for yourself. Such suffering needs outlet, needs transformation into power. Cue children, especially unattached children. Look at the little f-ckers. They don’t know what we went through. We’ll wipe the smile off the faces.

I’m not saying that was conscious or even uppermost in the decisions which brought such children to Australia. But I am saying that it dovetailed with economic need — to get a surplus population out of the UK and into an underpopulated continent — in such a way that the mass shipping of children like cattle came to seem “obvious”.

One reason that stories like the British-Australian transportees has been repeatedly turned away from, for so long, is that it reminds us of the shadow of the love expressed in the parent/adult-child bond — the fear resentment the adult has for the child, the lesser feeling that can become dominant in pathological situations, individual or otherwise. Yet of course.

So the British-Australian transportees were part of a major larger process of global derangement. It would be wrong to say that they suffered less than those in Europe who actually went hungry and cold — the anarchy of those years may well have been less deforming than the meticulous cruelties of the adoption-and-labour system. There are clearly worse things than being hungry and cold.

All of which has to raise the question — despite all the suffering that occurred, is an apology by the state to a group of people who have defined themselves as ‘the forgotten Australians’ really right? I mean is it ultimately, a mistaken idea of what history is, and what role the state should play in our lives.

The apology to this group — I’m not going to adopt their predisposing self-definition — is obviously conceived in imitation of the apology to the stolen generations. You could have an argument about that too, but its stronger claim to legitimacy is that it was conducted between two separate peoples concerning an attempt by one to dissolve the other entirely, by breaching intergenerational reproduction.

That is a pretty categorical sort of act by one people against another, and is sufficient to make the Apology effectively singular. Does an apology to mistreated children work in both directions in a negative way? On the one hand it gives the state a therapeutic role, and the attribution of a conscience and continuity.

On the other it turns the stolen generations into just another Bad Thing, when it is clearly something more.

The “forgotten Australians” apology does many things that should give people of all political stripes cause for reflection. Firstly, it makes the state the agent of a set of acts — compassion, sympathy, pity, reparation, remorse — that are properly human, and should be expressed between individuals or groups.

Does this turn those emotions, capable of being given freely by people to people, into a process of psychological administration, of the management of public feeling? Does it give an official imprimatur to an identity based around victimhood? Does it form part of the extension of the state into new areas of life. The old left-right fight about the external goals of the state — individual liberty versus emancipatory equality — become subordinated to a state role in making people happy, whole, redeemed, recognised.

Such apologies could proliferate endlessly. Treatment of the mentally ill, of women, gay men and lesbians — the idea of open-ended apology is ultimately a denial of history as unfinished process of struggle. The apology creates a sense that something is wrong because it falls short of the standards of the present — it implicitly suggests the present, and the present state, as an empyrean height to which everything prior has been leading.

That is terrible ceding of power to the state and the present, and one that seems to be occurring at a time when the qualities that contribute to making history – notions of self-reliance, resilience, of talking back to one’s inherited losses and limits are a little in the shade, dwarfed by the proxy humanitarianism of celebrities, the self-congratulation of charity and a ceding of civic struggle to “nation building”.

It is all the more difficult to contest when the raw material is as awful as it is in many of the transportee childrens’ stories — but all the more necessary, especially when it is being undertaken by a government engaged in the manufacture of fresh orphans on the other side of the world.

I subscribe to Crikey because I believe in a free, open and independent media where news and opinions can be published that I can both agree with and be challenged by.

As a Crikey subscriber I always feel more informed and able to think more critically about issues and current affairs – even when they don’t always reflect my own political viewpoint or lived experience.

Jess
Singapore

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