The undisputed facts seem very clear: Ned Kelly was a notorious criminal, a multiple police killer, and yet there are people who think he was a hero. How is that possible? How can some people believe Ned Kelly was a hero and others that he was a villain?
Well, one thing that makes it easier for someone to believe that Ned Kelly could be a hero despite what everyone else says, is that Ned Kelly wouldn’t be the only personality who arouses strong and sincere but opposing viewpoints. Politicians are the obvious example: to Republicans Donald Trump is making America great again, to others he’s an appalling buffoon. Soldiers are another example – hated by one side while the other side is determined to decorate them as heroes. A spy is a brave patriot to one General, a treasonous scum to another. Both descriptions seem to be valid – it just depends on where you’re coming from. One mans hero CAN be another mans villain, right?
So if someone can be patriot and traitor at the same time, depending on where you’re coming from, then couldn’t Ned Kelly be a hero and a villain at the same time, depending on where you’re coming from? Or has one side simply got it wrong?
Aidan Phelan and Matthew Holmes, and the Historian on the Lawless documentary series refuse to say. They think asking if Ned Kelly was a hero or a villain is asking the wrong question. Like the Beechworth tour guide, and like Peter Fitzsimons the journalist they believe Ned Kelly was somewhere in the middle, somewhere between ‘villainous hero and heroic villain’ Phelan thinks that there’s nothing to be gained by trying to decide if Ned Kelly was a villain or a hero because all that happens is that “the debate about Ned Kelly ceases to be about Ned Kelly at all and simply becomes a contest about the moral superiority and respective intelligence of the opponents.
Phelans thesis is that people whose moral values lead them to condemn a person who would chase a wounded policeman through the bush and kill him, or plot to wreck a train and kill any survivors are people with hang ups about moral values.
“Ned Kelly becomes the scapegoat upon which society heaps its hang-ups about moral values.”
I don’t know if he realises it but that’s a very ‘post-modern’ approach, an approach that shies away from value judgements and the idea of objective truth, and favours a moral relativism in its analysis of history. People who are critical of Ned Kelly’s murders and plans to murder are using him as a scapegoat, according to Phelan, making themselves feel better, and morally superior, by loading on to Ned Kelly their own ‘hang-ups’.To Phelan, there are no real villains, just complex individuals who we shouldn’t judge, because we are all in the same boat:
“its very easy to forget that Ned Kelly was a living, breathing human being. He had loves, hates, family, friends, skills and talents just like all of us. He loved horses, he was an excellent tradesman and his favourite book was Lorna Doone. Do these qualities negate the fact that he killed people and held people hostage? Certainly not, but they help to remind us that Ned Kelly was not some cartoon character or a black hat wearing outlaw in a cowboy movie.”
Matthew Holmes and Aidan Phelan seem to want to argue that there is no such thing as a truly bad man, just men who are misunderstood, and this is how they want us to view Ned Kelly, not as a hero or as a villain, but as someone not unlike ourselves. This I think was the sort of Ned Kelly Holmes and Phelan wanted to portray in his movie, a sympathetic portrayal that refused to make a judgement about him. But I cant help wondering how many Kelly sympathisers would be happy about Martin Bryant and Charles Manson getting the same treatment that Ned Kelly gets from these post-modernists? They certainly wouldn’t tolerate it if Holmes and Phelan applied that approach to Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick : imagine the outcry from Kelly sympathisers if Phelan and Holmes tried to argue that Fitzpatrick “was a living, breathing human being. He had loves, hates, family, friends, skills and talents just like all of us.”
But if someone like Ned Kelly shouldn’t be labelled a villain, because that would just be making a scapegoat of him, and a reflection of our own hangups, then this must mean they don’t think there are truly good men either, and that all of us are roughly the same clustered about a mean for moral rectitude.
The reality I think is that this ‘post-modern’ approach breaks down at the margins, at the extremes, like many theories of human behaviour do. We are indeed mostly much the same, clustered about the mean with just a different collection of loves and hates, skills and talents, strengths and weaknesses – but some of us are clearly very different. Martin Bryant is one such person – hugely different from most of us – a mentally deranged, damaged and deeply disturbed individual with obsessions and thoughts and behaviours that place him close to the extreme end of the spectrum of human behaviour that ranges from Saint to Sinner, from Hero to Villain. Yes, we are all the product of a unique mix of influences from within and without, capable of exhibiting greater or lesser quantities of good and bad behaviour but in a rare few the mix produces behaviour that is almost all bad and very little of the good. Such people used to be called evil. Now we know some of them have personality disorders and character traits that identify them as deviants, psychopaths, narcissists and sociopaths. Some of them have brain damage. Some of them are suffering the affects of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, limited intelligence.
So when it comes to Ned Kelly, where should we put him? The post modernists think their approach avoids value judgements and they decry attempts to ‘put him’ anywhere – and yet they have put him in the middle. Phelan unfortunately mischaracterises the debate by making it about the extremes, writing that people who say Kelly was a villain believe “he is a murderous psychopath, a pathological liar and the figurehead for some kind of quasi-cult. To these people he represents everything that is wrong with human kind and should be used as a kind of bogey man to make people walk the straight-and-narrow. He is irredeemable to those that see him as nothing more than a glorified thug. This is a typical ‘straw man’ argument, in which the argument about Ned Kelly being a villain is converted into something that’s easy to demolish, a mere cartoon character, yet demolishing a straw man achieves nothing.
The point I want to emphasise is that calling someone a villain, or a hero does not require or imply in any way a denial of the persons humanity, or a denial of the complexities of human development and character, or a denial that there may be some good in even the worst of men, and some evil in the best. But calling someone a villain, or a hero is a statement of what you believe to be the truth about a person after weighing up all the evidence, all the good and all the bad, all the influences and the circumstances of the life being examined, like a Star rating for a movie or an ATAR rating that is an attempt to sum up a persons ability with a single number. I’m old fashioned enough to still believe such scoring systems have a use, but not so blind as to be unable to see that a person is a whole lot more than just a number or a label, and sometimes that number or a label can be thoroughly misleading.
Equally, with Ned Kelly. If we are not going to simply abandon the attempt to understand who Ned Kelly was, we are going to have to put him somewhere. And its very clear to me that he does not belong in the middle – Ned Kelly was not Mr Joe Average.
My assessment of everything about him, his background, his personality, his influences, his behaviour and his writing leads me to the conclusion that in those last few mad and chaotic years of his life he was most definitely a villain. What I see is a decline that started not long after his father died and the family moved to Greta, a slow but accelerating decline into criminality and villainy. I don’t see an icon. I don’t see a role model. I don’t see someone to be admired but a narcissistic and violent criminal, who it would be wrong to portray as just like all of us.